Being "Restless & Rebellious" Is Not Bad

Being "Restless & Rebellious" Is Not Bad

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Promo still of Summer of Soul
Written by: 
Published:
July 8, 2021

This week’s Sabbath School lesson focuses on Numbers and First Corinthians and explores ways that individuals and groups have been restless and rebellious. As I read the texts and the commentary and processed the quarterly’s message of respecting leaders and sticking with the group, I found myself thinking the opposite. And that’s not because I don’t like or trust authority. I value the careful use of power to propel communities to achieving their mission. But I had just watched a great new documentary, currently playing in theaters and streaming on Hulu, that showed me ways that being restless and rebellious can be a net good: politically and even spiritually. 

The film, Summer of Soul (2021), consists of the only extant—and recently recovered—footage of the Harlem Cultural Festival in 1969. "Footage of the festival had been locked in a basement for 50 years, because TV and film companies were not interested in it at the time." But the great musician Ahmir "Questlove" Thompson, who directed this documentary, clearly understood the value. 

As Odie Henderson writes for RogerEbert.com:

And what talent there is here! It’s not enough for us to see performances; Thompson gives us scenes where the artists are filmed watching themselves and commenting. Gladys Knight appears to talk about her experience, as does Stevie Wonder; the latter’s performance includes a mean, jaw-dropping drum solo. Mavis Staples is heard in voiceover describing how moved she was to perform with gospel legend Mahalia Jackson (their duet is enough to make an atheist reconsider). Staples also recalls when she realized her father, guitarist Roebuck “Pops” Staples was writing songs with God’s lyrics atop the Devil’s music. As a surprise, Lin-Manuel Miranda appears to discuss the Afro-Latino performers who also took the stage, and we get a geography lesson about Spanish Harlem.

Watching all this and much more, I felt like I was in church, and at other moments I was in the club, as I sat there in my local independent movie theater. More than anything, I was in the lecture hall learning music history and political history. It made me realize that these teachers were rebels. One musician reflects on being a part of the Motown music machine. He says that when they got to the festival, they were all “suit and tie guys.” But then they saw Sly and the Family Stone’s funky, free style. He deadpans: “We no longer were suit and tie guys.”

The part that lingers most is the ending. Behind the musical festival stage backdrop that literally says FESTIVAL looms the pain of the Civil Rights struggle. The rebel alliance had lost too many. The people were restless and needed hope. And then Nina Simone, regal and angelic in an Ankara print gown, sings pure poetic power. Words too strong for many readers here. But their truth took me back to my restless youth.

When I was in academy, I had a rebellious teacher. He was the campus carpenter. He drove around in a blue van full of wood, saws, and hammers. He also taught the mandatory Washington State history course. I don’t know how this happened, but the only thing I remember from his class is that we watched the entire Eyes on the Prize PBS series on the Civil Rights struggle. 

I have no idea how he “justified” this since most of that documentary footage involves a different part of the country, but I don’t care. I learned, and a restless flame was lit in my soul: respect for the righteous rebels of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and everyone who risked everything for their beliefs. Perhaps to keep the light alive, on a brief holiday academy break I was browsing in a used bookstore and bought We Speak as Liberators: Young Black Poets, published in 1970. This week, after watching Summer of Soul, after studying my lesson quarterly, I went to look for that anthology of restless voices. I had used to read it along with my daily devotions as a teen. Then I had moved it to Michigan, and then moved it back to California now. Eureka! Reading it anew, I know: restless and rebellious, that's what moves my Advent movement.

"The Move Continuing" by Al Young

All beginnings start right here.

The suns & moons of our spirits

keep touching.

I look out the windows at rain

& listen casually to latest developments

of the apocalypse

over the radio

barely unpacked

& hear you shuttling in the background

from one end of the new apartment

to the other

bumping into boxes of personal belongings

I can barely remember having touched 48 hours ago.

Jazz

a very ancient music

whirls beneficently

into our rented front room, 

Coltrane blessing us with a loving presence.

I grow back thru years

to come upon myself

shivering

in my own presence.

That was a long time ago

when the bittersweet world

passed before

(rather than thru)

me

a vibratory collage

of delights

in supercolor.

It wasn't difficult becoming a gypsy.

At one end of the line 

there was God

& at the very other end

there was God.

In between

shine all the stars of all the spaces

illuminating everything

to the two tender points

that are your eyes,

the musical instruments

of these strong but gentle black men

glowing in the dark,

the darkness of my own heart

beating its way along

thru all the evenings

that lengthen my skies,

all the stockings

that have ever been rolled down

sadly,

lover & beloved

reaching

to touch one another

at this different time

in this different place

as tho tonight were only the beginning

of all those

yester-

days. 

 

Alexander Carpenter is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

Title Image: The Harlem Cultural Festival of 1969, shown in Summer of Soul (via Searchlight Pictures/20th Century Studios).

 

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