In 1973, Detroit’s Stevie Wonder released Innervisions, a groove-filled album that was simultaneously joyous, sharp-eyed, and steely. In its third track “Living for the City,” Wonder croons, and in moments growls, over a buoyant beat, about the fate of urban America and its people. Inequality defined their economic straits: “His mother goes to scrub the floors for many/And you’d best believe she hardly gets a penny.” Racism stalks them at every turn: “To find a job is like a haystack needle/’Cause where he lives they don’t use colored people.” Pollution robbed them of life: “He’s almost dead from breathin’ in air pollution/He tried to vote but to him there’s no solution.” Shrugging off bitterness, Wonder adopts a throbbing, critical resistance. In the end, Wonder’s omniscent narrator pleads with listeners,
I hope you hear inside my voice of sorrow
And that it motivates you to make a better tomorrow
This place is cruel no where could be much colder
If we don’t change the world will soon be over
Living just enough, stop giving just enough for the city
In many ways, last night’s panel on Urban Uprisings Against Racist Police Terror in Historical Context – the second in the UHA’s summer lecture series on race, policing, and abolition – paralleled Wonder’s classic 1973 album, as Heather Ann Thompson, Austin McCoy, Max Felker-Kanter, Carl Suddler, and moderators Matt Guariglia and Charlotte Rosen questioned traditional historical explanations surrounding urban protests from 1943 to 1967 to 1992 to today.
Join us next week, on July 15th at 8 PM, for our final panel in the series: Imagining Alternatives to Modern Policing: Past, Present, and Future. Historians Kelly Lytle Hernandez, Marisol LeBrón, Dan Berger, Alex Vitale, and Stuart Schrader will join The Metropole’s Disciplining the City editors Matt Guariglia and Charlotte Rosen. Indeed if any theme has resonated from the first two panels and is likely to emerge from the third, one might point to Innervisions’ most notable track, “Higher Ground”:
Teachers keep on teachin’/
Preachers keep on preachin’ …
Gonna keep on tryin’
Till I reach my highest ground.
Featured image (at top): ‘Riot Wall,” Patrick Stewart, May 29, 2020, Flickr.