Pleading Our Own Cause

Rev. Dr. Cornell Edmonds Esq. is Interim Pastor of The Church of the Covenant, E. 42nd St NYC (around the corner from United Nations).

In our quest for positive self-identity, sometimes the best guidance for our communities hides in plain sight. For example, the following abstract from the first editorial of the first Black edited and published American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal:

The peculiarities of the journal, render it important that we should advertise to the world the motives by which we are actuated, and the objects which we contemplate.

We wish to plead our own cause.

Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the publick been deceived by misrepresentations in things which concern us dearly, though in the estimation of some mere trifles; for though there are many in society who exercise towards us benevolent feelings; still (with sorrows we confess it) there are others who make it their business to enlarge upon the least trifle, which tends to the discredit of any person of colour; and pronounce anathemas and denounce our whole body for the misconduct of this guilty one.

The editors and proprietors of Freedom’s Journal, Rev. Samuel Eli Cornish and John Brown Russworm, succinctly stated the reason for their undertaking. “To plead our own cause.”—something we need to do now more than ever. It is essential to the survival of our community. Over time we have ‘pleaded our own cause’ in various ways—through art, theater, dance, poetry, and journalism. Today of course, social media and branding have huge influence in communicating messages. Music has served as a unique vehicle for our people to plead our cause. Through musical innovation, we announced who we were and the causes of importance to us. When challenged to assert the necessary positive identity to plead our own cause, Say It Loud, written by “Pee Wee” Ellis and released by James Brown in 1968, offered classic musical restatement of the bold editorial claims of Cornish and Russworm.

June presents a wonderful opportunity to ‘say it loud’ as we commemorate the 43rd anniversary of Black Music Month. Black music is an unprecedented cultural legacy of the Black community. Innovative genres of Black music have ushered in unique voices to “plead our own cause.”s Throughout the years our positive music resoundingly reconciled the question posed in the fourth verse of the 137th Psalm of David. “How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” Historically tormented as a community, one of the greatest of which is public misrepresentation of who we are. The music we controlled and produced, which expressed our joys and laments, gave a counter narrative. As creative control diminishes, and others determine what we produce musically, and how the message is disseminated, the clarion call of the Cornish and Russworm editorial rings prophetic. Can anyone understand who we are if we are not empowered to communicate just that? To plead one’s own cause is to be empowered to give distinct and positive voice to the particular identity and concerns of a community. It is a hallmark of a community’s freedom.

Bold and Beautiful

Nearly two hundred years since the first publication of Freedom’s Journal, editor and publisher, Jean Wells and Adrian Council, continue that legacy. Their persistent efforts afford our community voice to positively “plead our own cause.” They refuse to allow the significance of Black Music Month, and its relationship to the positive identity of our community, to wane with passage of time. Though times have changed, the need to “plead our own cause,” continues. I dare write that the need appears to be more urgent today than ever. Consider the diminishing artistic control over what Black artists lyrically and visually produce. Musical products that, tragically, misrepresent who we are, in the words of Cornish and Russworm, “tends to the discredit of any person of colour.” The implications of those messages are devastating our communities and the generations of young people who simply demand to know that their lives matter. Misrepresented, confusing, and confounding messages about a people can easily translate into discrimination and violence toward those very same people.

I recall a time when listening to artists who freely sang the Lord’s song in this strange land was all one needed to understand our causes, and who we were. Consider the message of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” Consider Freda Payne’s “Bring the Boys Home,” and its exhortation. Consider Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues” and its impact. Consider James Brown’s “Say It Loud” and how it inspired a community to proudly self-identify. This month and beyond, consider the full inheritance of Black music, and how it attests to the countless positive contributions we have made to this nation and the world.

I close with words from Dr. Thelma Adair, the nearly 102-year-old matriarch of our larger community, who shared these wise words: “The cause is not over . . . it is important to join together to celebrate ourselves . . . doing so is a long walk, not a short hop.”

We must persist in pleading our own causes in ways that accentuate our gifts as a people and a community led by those who are bold, loving and loud, Black, beautiful, and proud.