What’s Going On

For many of us suburban white kids who Grew Up Boomer, Marvin Gaye is an icon of our youth. We danced to his early Motown singles and sang along as we drove to nowhere with the windows down. We were enthused when he departed from the style of his earlier work in 1968 with I Heard it Through the Grapevine (in 2004, it was ranked at 81 on the Rolling Stone list of The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time), and then in 1971, What’s Going On was released. Instead of the typical, relationship-based songs that Motown released, What’s Going On was different: it seemed more personal.

The lyrics resonated with many suburban Boomers (of which I was one), a large proportion of whom had begun to enter a post-college working world that demanded conformity to established norms of dress and behavior; nonetheless, many of us had not yet abandoned rebellious attitudes toward America that had been shaped by the turmoil of the 60s: the assassination of our heroes (JFK, RFK, and MLK, Jr.), a horrific war that was still killing and maiming tens of thousands of our heroic brothers, and riots in our cities (christened Race Riots by the 1960s Media).

In researching this post, I had the insight—it’s only taken me fifty years to come to this realization—that the title is not a question: What’s Going On is a declarative statement, a heads-up that the lyrics were going to describe what was happening at the moment in time when the song was written:

Mother, mother, There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

Father, father, we don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today,

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on

Mother, mother, everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
C’mon talk to me
So you can see
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Tell me what’s going on
I’ll tell you what’s going on
Right on baby
Right on baby

What was going on in 1971 were the conditions that had led to the urban riots of the 1960s: toxic poverty (high unemployment, poor schools, poor healthcare, housing inadequacy), and toxic racism characterized by racial bias in hiring, housing, sentencing, and in the disproportionate occurrences of police brutality. An example of the latter had been witnessed by Renaldo Benson, and that experience had prompted Benson, Al Cleveland, and Gaye to write What’s Going On. In other words, the song was intended as a wake up call. Unfortunately, despite the fact that Gaye’s recording topped the Hot Soul Singles for five weeks and reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100, and despite rebellious Boomers’ “hearts,” white, middle class America kept on sleeping until it was awakened this summer. What we saw when we awoke was that What’s Going On in 2020 was the same thing that was going on a half century before in 1971, as well as what was going on during the 350 years that preceded Gaye’s passionate reveal.

When I heard What’s Going On on my Marvin Gaye Pandora station a few days back—I had not heard the song for months—my emotional response was not one of nostalgia. I was angry. I was angry with my generation for having failed to address What’s Going On even though police brutality and racism has been in our faces for half a century since Gaye’s musical description of that status quo in 1971. So, as you read the title of this post, you might read it not as a the declarative statement that had originally been intended, but as a rhetorical question in a voice that is loud and outraged, an accusing question hurled at all of us, to which the only apparent answer is …

NOTHING!

I am not implying that nothing has changed in the past fifty years in the realm of opportunities available to people of color; rather, I’m stating categorically that if you’re a person of color, nothing has changed when it comes to police brutality and justice inequities. What’s Going On today is what was going on fifty years ago.

Thus far, you’ve been reading a rant by an old man directed at you instead of the TV, but truth be told, my rant is not just because of the immorality of racism; it’s also due to the frustration I feel at the vacuum of wide and effective efforts on the part of our generation to curtail it. I remember a successful beginning of such an effort when I was a teenager in the early 60s. It was then that a white, suburban, advantaged kid like me was given the opportunity to participate in and observe frank conversations that resulted when members of some of Harrisburg’s black and white church congregations joined together to talk about What’s Going On. It wasn’t a massive, Harrisburg-area intervention, but it was massive for me because where I was growing up on the West Shore of the Susquehanna opposite Harrisburg, there were no black folks among the 40,000 people who lived there: I never talked with a black person of any age about anything until I was thirteen!

Those conversations had been a beginning, but then there was an assassination, and then two more that were illuminated by urban riots. The anger during the 60s was even hotter than that of this summer, and nothing comes of anger but more anger. Still, there was something about those frank conversations I experienced in the early 60s that kept an ember of hope glowing in my mind, and when I could, I would engage in those frank conversations about race at a personal level, even incorporating them in the sessions I facilitated that had been labeled as diversity training, but in which I only encouraged conversations about all the ways that people of different races were the same, not about all the ways that we were different, or as the lyric says … C’mon talk to me, so you can see what’s going on; yeah, what’s going on, tell me what’s going on, I’ll tell you what’s going on … right on baby.

In prepping for this post, I searched for something to share that might provide specific insights about how to reduce bigotry and diminish racism, and I think I found one that you can dive deeply into. It’s a 2018 Vox article entitled Research says there are ways to reduce racial bias. Calling people racist isn’t one of them. I encourage you to spend some time with considering what it has to offer, and if you have any comments or suggestions you’d like to share, please use the “Leave a Reply” box below.

The Vox article will provide specific strategies, but Gaye’s What’s Going On provides an underlying foundation of righteousness that was something that I learned in the 60s, something that Marvin still touches in my soul when I hear him sing …

Father, father, we don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

Dear Reader: your “follow” will be most appreciated (click “Menu” in this post) as will forwarding this post’s link to a friend who you think might enjoy the blog. Thanks! Jeff

(No copyright infringement is intended nor is there an intent on the part of the blogger to monetize the use of the image in this post; the featured image is from Pixabay)

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