“The Electric Slide Protest”

by

Derrick Bell

 

When I think about Jesus and what He’s done for me
When I think about Jesus and how He set me free
I can dance dance dance dance dance dance all night.

–Andrae Crouch

 

This, probably the most spectacular racial demonstration in the history of civil rights, captured unprecedented media attention. For a few days afterward there was virtually no other news coverage, not even sports or the weather. But the best account is the one Jesse Semple gave his brother, who had been on vacation in one of the few remaining places in the world that manage to get along without newspapers or television.

Man, it was something! I cannot believe you missed it–and no way, no way in this world can I describe it to you. But, listen, because you are and have been my main man goin’ all the way back, as well as my brother, I’m going to try to do the impossible. I’m goin’ to paint a picture for you.

Okay, okay, it was a beautiful morning, late spring. In fact, it was the mornin’ of the day when Congress was all set to take a final vote on the Freedom of Employment Act. You know, the one to end affirmative action and, some people say, start Black folks on the road back to slavery.

Well, early that mornin’, Black women of every description under Heaven began gathering ‘longside major thoroughfares and in front of government buildings. Women turned out early in major cities across the country.

Now get this. These women were young, old and all manner of in-between. They were all the sizes, shapes, colors you can imagine–even if you let your imagination get carried away. This wasn’t no class thing. To tell you the truth, it wasn’t a strictly Black thing, either. I saw some White women, Asian and Hispanic women. But mostly the women were Black. It was somethin’. There were women who do day work, secretaries, factory workers, housewives, teachers, beauticians, businesswomen, doctors and lawyers and anything else you can think of. Yep. There were some street hustlers there and some nuns in their habits. Some seditty society ladies and some who, if they didn’t split verbs, couldn’t use no verbs at all.

What was they doin’? They was quiet and seemin’ly so spread out that nobody paid them no never-mind. If anyone noticed as more and more of ’em gathered, they didn’t say nothin’. Police? Police didn’t come until later, and by then, nothin’ they could do ‘ceptin’ look foolish and act vicious, which of course some of them proceeded to do. But, I tell you, these Black women were so natural, so dry-long-so lookin’ that no one was upset or nervous, as often happens when they’s more Black people someplace than there is White people.

Those women near post offices formed orderly lines as though waitin’ for the doors to open to buy stamps. Women gathered at bus stops look like they waitin’ to go to work. Many of the sisters seemed to be walkin’ toward markets, malls or department stores with nothing more serious ‘n Shoppin’ on their minds.

I mean, none of them seemed hassled or in a hurry. Their numbers, by this time, must have been in the hundreds of thousands–at the very least. They gossiped with one another, laughed, kidded and exchanged greetings across plazas, up on overpasses, down flights of steps. I mean–don’t get me wrong–you could tell these were Black women even if you was blind and could only hear ’em. No, man, not loud–just Black.

Then at ten o’clock, precisely on the hour, all of these Black women across the country began–now get this!– hearin’ in their heads a large band playing music for dancin’. And not just any dancin’. Every one of these women knew the music immediately. As one, they yelled in friendly recognition of the sounds they all loved: the electric slide!

They screamed, cheered and clapped their hands, hearin’ that band playin’ Marcia Griffiths’s dance lyrics with plenty of melody and even more rhythm. Then in one gigantic movement from coast to coast, the women moved en masse into the center of the avenues, parkways, streets, plaza entrances and onto bridges, subway platforms, train stations and airport-passenger terminals. As they moved, they already doin’ the electric slide, doin’ it as only Black women can.

What a sight! Man, what can I say? It was poetry in motion, but that’s too trite. It was rhythmic readiness, but that’s too suggestive, What you say? Oh, militant movement. Yep, maybe. That sounds better, but man, there was a joy in the dancing, too. It was a soulful response to the music, all those women actin’ together but also for their ownselves. In fact, what they were doing puts the word movement to shame.

Now, you know, you don’t need a partner to do the electric slide. Men and women, old and young, form lines, not formal, just what comes naturally. And, with no partner, you get in rhythm with the other people in your line. Or if the spirit moves you, with the line in front or the one to the side, or if the spirit really moves you, you do whatever feels good.

Don’t get me wrong. This ain’t no sexist or sex-motivated thing, but I just love to watch our women move while they doin’ the electric slide. Seeing them do that dance is like–well, it’s like Liberation Time. Somehow, dancing in those lines with everybody doing the basic steps, goin’ backward and forward and turnin’ at the same time, well, man, that gives ’em somethin’ to work with. They sense a freedom to be free–to improvise like their bodies are musical instruments. And what I’m sayin’, this is true of fly chicks from out on the avenue and dignified professional women, including judges, doctors and legislators. They all get down, as we both know. Their expressions are too much. “Hey!” they’re sayin’ without utterin’ a word. “Hey, world, this is me as I am right now! This is even me as I may never be again. This is about celebratin’ me. Dig it? Me!”

Okay, so you get the picture. Well, imagine that dance floor with the electric slide goin’ by, spread out all over America on major avenues and intersections. As those women all begin to move, traffic and everythin’ else comes to a stop. For a time, the White folks was mesmerized. Even most of them willin’ to give us our due when it comes to dancin’. But then folks noticed that nothin’ runnin’, that everythin’ backed up. The women don’t seem to notice the growing commotion. The horns honkin’, the shouts and curses. By now, they’re into the electric slide as never before. And how does the gospel song go? “They ain’t noways tired.” Even the police get ignored, which no police like. Especially when the ignorin’ is by Black folk. Especially by Black women. The police gets mad and orders folks under arrest. But the women keeps on dancin’.

By this time, there’s many more Black women joinin’ in, fillin’ all the public places both in the cities where the thing started and now in hundreds of other places. And they ain’t even thinkin’ about stoppin’. They just steady dancin they behinds off.

Police reinforcements, including the riot squads, come out. First, they kinda taken aback. Then they start in yellin’ threats over their bullhorns and tryin’ to clear the streets and intersections. The women get shoved this way and that, but they keep on dancin’. They don’t even seem to see the police. So if you can believe it–and I know you-can–the police start using their billy clubs. Yeah, man! On the Black women. But the women don’t panic. They try to shield themselves by puttin’ their arms up and around their heads and dancin’ in tight groups, but they keep on dancin’.

Well, when the police start beatin’ on the women, electric-slide music shifted to a big choir singin’ “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.” And the sisters start singin’ along as they are dancin’. Now, we can’t hear the gospel choir, but the sisters is they own gospel choir, the movin’, swayin’ voices of thousands of women, all singin’ ‘bow how God may not come when you call Him, but He’s right on time. Well, man, it had to be the biggest, baddest gospel choir in all of history! Something, man! Something!

Meanwhile, the police flailin’ away, notwithstandin’ all of this gorgeous sound and harmony which gives the women strength to face anythin’. When one of the sisters is hurt and falls, three or four other women stops. and carries her over to the side, where Black men and women, doctors and nurses come out of nowhere and tend to the wounded. They carry out on stretchers those women need-in’ more medical treatment’n they got on the scene.

The Black men? Well, a lot of men, some caring for young children, are standing on the sidelines. And this is men from all walks of life–I mean all walks of life. They helps carry out the women who are hit, and they helps keep the children calm. But ‘cept for a few brothers who lost it and had to be held back from wadin’ in after the police, the men do not interfere with the women, even though some must be their sisters, wives, mothers, girlfriends.

It was powerful, man! Brings tears to my eyes just tellin’ you about it. This protest was a Black women’s thing just like the electric slide’s a Black women s dance. The men knew it, respected it, supported it. But they didn’t jump in, try to take over, or tell their women to leave. I’ve never seen nothin’ like it.

Brother, give me just a minute here! I’m gettin’ too choked up to talk. I ain’t never in my life been so proud to be Black. We ain’t got much and get- tin’ less and less all the time. But we got heart and we got soul. Sometime I think we the only ones got it.

And what do we get? We get no R-E-S-P-E-C-T, as Aretha’d put it. They try to beat-it out of us. And mostly, they use the police to do it. The police? Where I was watchin’, they gave up and stood by–in case the women should try to enter buildings and such, which they never did give any intention of doin’. The TV news reported that in other cities the police got carried away and fired tear gas into the dancers. Some women were overcome, but most just moved down the avenues. still dancin’, until the police give up.

Even when there was a hullabaloo, the women did not even slow the tempo. They danced all that day and well into the evening. Men brought them sandwiches and drinks. And some of the older women would take breaks. But nobody left until it was over at 10 P.M. on the East Coast.

Meanwhile, back at the Congress, that mornin’ all they could see out their windows was thousand of Black women dancin’ all around the Capitol building. What? Sure, they got nervous. Wouldn’t you? They put off the vote. Claimed it was ’cause the dancin’ kept a bunch of the congress people from getting to work. Savin’ face is what they was doin’, if you ask me.

Bring the bill up for a vote tomorrow or next week? That’s what they’re claimin’. Me, I don’t believe it. White folks is stupid on race stuff, but they ain’t crazy. They know Black folks all fired up. Same everywhere, far as I can make out. TV not sayin’ very much, but I have not seen so much plannin’ and preparin’ since the early 1960’s. Men’s groups say they want to do something just as big, and even the national civil-rights groups claim they’ll be leading protests and boycotts.

I think people serious this time. It’s like back in 1960, after those four col- lege students protested segregation by sitting in at that lunch counter back in Greensboro, North Carolina. They started somethin’ that spread across the South, across the country. And they was only four, not 4 million. I think this electric-slide protest has started something. Something big.

What? No, bro’, I have not heard a word about the Freedom of Employment Act. In fact, I’ll bet you real money that we don’t hear about that bill again.

 

From Gospel Choirs: Psalms of Survival in an Alien Land Called Home by Derrick Bell. Published by Basic Books, a Division of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. Copyright (C) 1996 by Derrick Bell.

 

Real or Imagined? REFLECTION:

This piece of social justice literature by Derrick Bell was effective, through: use of diction, specific dialectical language, recognizing women’s authority, beauty and power, and acknowledging the natural heart and soul of Black people. Bell also painted a picture that recognized but didn’t blatantly state the dangerous nature of White fear and mistrust of Blacks. In this reflection, I am blatantly discussing this fear first and foremost. Understanding his audience, he made specific choices to present this work to the world.

Painting a Picture: This direct action radical movement of women revealed layers of racial and social mistrust interwoven in the society. These women moved peacefully, lovingly and freely, to demonstrate a united front. The violence, fear and mistrust these  women were met with is appalling. This is seen in the following passage:

Police reinforcements, including the riot squads, come out. First, they kinda taken aback. Then they start in yellin’ threats over their bullhorns and tryin’ to clear the streets and intersections. The women get shoved this way and that, but they keep on dancin’. They don’t even seem to see the police. So if you can believe it–and I know you-can–the police start using their billy clubs. Yeah, man! On the Black women. But the women don’t panic. They try to shield themselves by puttin’ their arms up and around their heads and dancin’ in tight groups, but they keep on dancin’.

Well, when the police start beatin’ on the women, electric-slide music shifted to a big choir singin’ “I’m so glad trouble don’t last always.” And the sisters start singin’ along as they are dancin’. Now, we can’t hear the gospel choir, but the sisters is they own gospel choir, the movin’, swayin’ voices of thousands of women, all singin’ ‘bow how God may not come when you call Him, but He’s right on time. Well, man, it had to be the biggest, baddest gospel choir in all of history! Something, man! Something!

NO matter if positive meaning, non-violent persons gather together, society has been structured to prevent any form of uprising and leveling of power, especially for raising up Black persons.

While yes, these women did not pose any physical threat of bodily harm or structural damage to buildings, they were met with violence because they represented a threat to the polite structure of racial relations. Black women en masse, moving as one, visually was terrifying to White society.

The support their men had for them, standing on the sidelines watching their women move, and get beaten also represented a united Black front.

The Black men? Well, a lot of men, some caring for young children, are standing on the sidelines. And this is men from all walks of life–I mean all walks of life. They helps carry out the women who are hit, and they helps keep the children calm. But ‘cept for a few brothers who lost it and had to be held back from wadin’ in after the police, the men do not interfere with the women, even though some must be their sisters, wives, mothers, girlfriends.

Any Black union, especially en masse is threatening to White society, because it demonstrates Black power, intellect and beauty. The insecurity and fear White society has for Black persons pretends to not be boastful or visible but is very omnipresent, socially penetrative and real.

As reading this, I had a hard time not being angered by the response police had to these women. Dehumanizing and devaluing them, they saw them as a gang of wild dogs to be suppressed and controlled. Most importantly, these women got the media attention they wanted and everyone was witness to these peaceful acts met by violence. I am curious if this violence was seen by our government as justified or was truly a ‘last resort’ response to this event. Was a ‘last resort response’ even warranted?

Rich with diction, using commentary and conversation to move the piece forward, Bell’s dialectical language made the reader feel the movements of the women. He painted a picture of not their bodies, but of their rhythmed souls.  Even though wars are waged on the bodies of women, I very much so appreciated this differing emphasis. Seen in the following passage:

Don’t get me wrong. This ain’t no sexist or sex-motivated thing, but I just love to watch our women move while they doin’ the electric slide. Seeing them do that dance is like–well, it’s like Liberation Time. Somehow, dancing in those lines with everybody doing the basic steps, goin’ backward and forward and turnin’ at the same time, well, man, that gives ’em somethin’ to work with. They sense a freedom to be free–to improvise like their bodies are musical instruments. And what I’m sayin’, this is true of fly chicks from out on the avenue and dignified professional women, including judges, doctors and legislators. They all get down, as we both know. Their expressions are too much. “Hey!” they’re sayin’ without utterin’ a word. “Hey, world, this is me as I am right now! This is even me as I may never be again. This is about celebratin’ me. Dig it? Me!”

Claiming these women as important members and accurate representations of an entire ethnic race, he gives them praise, celebrates and honors their power. He also moves to the recognition of their differences and similarities which is important, because it emphasizes their unity. His style of writing, interjected with exclamations and insider dialect shows his acceptance of his insider position. Very successful as a social justice piece, Derrick Bell pays homage to Black female power.