By ERIC BROWN | Nashville Voice
Why do so many people think being radical is a facial expression, a fashion sense, a particular language, or a clique?
Why is that being “radical” stereotyped as either being in or out of a group rather than giving purpose to yourself, your family, your people, and your world? Why is being radical only linked to being angry or being a victim of history?
Some equate being radical as people who are impatient: “You should just be a Southern Belle or Southern Gentleman. Don’t get caught up with making all these demands. Take your time and learn to work with the system.”
I have spoken with some people who have suggested, “To make it in Nashville, you have to learn how to wait your turn.”
On the other hand, being “radical” Nashville is not always about being an oddball, or weird, or an eclectic. These things are not bad, but it shouldn’t be the only marker of being radical.
Being radical is not always about going forward in an uncertain manner. Being radical is about going back. Being radical is to go to the origin. Being radical is about getting to the root of the matter.
Or better yet, to be radical is to be the root. As is the case for all plants, roots are found underground. The root is the underground part of a plant.
Roots are the part of the plant that forms or changes the whole being of any person, entity, object, system, or meaning. To get to the root of something, one has to dig, study, or work hard to get to it. Ok, I know what you are asking, “What is the point of all this word study of the word, radical?”
Radical is not just about existing or simply being; radical also includes doing. To be radical is not easy. It doesn’t come with a handbook or “master plan.” No one can appoint you to be radical.
To be radical is to be about action; not action, in the sense of going in circles or looking busy.
To be radical is to do the work that everyone does not see nor does it need to be announced. The work of those who get at the root often goes without being noticed, acknowledged, affirmed, or credited.
Radicals are not usually famous. They are criticized, burden-bearers, and prisoners to the service for the benefit of others.
You can’t just slide on a pair of army fatigues to be radical. You can’t grow out your hair without using chemicals to be radical.
On the other hand, you can’t criminalize or outlaw it either… Well maybe you can, but that doesn’t exterminate radicality. You can’t sanitize radicality or commercialize it just so others feel safe around those who work to get to the root.
Being radical is about forming the foundation properly so that healthy growth happens for a tree, flower, plant, organization, or people to be strongly held high in its existence. You can’t imitate, duplicate, fake, or cap on being radical.
To be radical is to be disciplined in creating a success story that you will never get to watch. It’s like being Moses and looking at the promised land but never been able to enter it. Let’s try an example of being radical.
In North Nashville, Jefferson Street was merely a street that was used a service road to a place called Fort Gilliam. Fort Gilliam was a place where Black soldiers and ex-slaves lived after the Civil War.
Those folks created a tight-knit community where they had no choice but to trust one another if they wanted to survive.
They worked together to build churches where they found hope in the image of God to keep them going. Those people were a part of those churches where they used money from tithes to build educational institutions we now know as historically Black colleges and universities.
Those people, who occasionally enjoyed a fish-fry or “Heaven and Hell” party, eventually created the Black-owned businesses where people could patronize speakeasies, juke joints, and pool halls that might have distributed moonshine and accommodated placing bets to fund scholarships for those who would become doctors and lawyers.
North Nashville is where people lived together in a community regardless if you were a wino or teacher. North Nashville is where the community is a community, whether right or wrong.
Don’t let me romanticize this too much.
Of course, Metro Nashville policies eventually pushed people out of the community. Interstates demolished institutions like Del Morocco’s and black-owned hotels.
Jim and Jane Crow still made the decisions if you could drink at a certain water fountain or had to pick up your food from the back door. Either way, there was something beyond the people that brought them together for a collective power to make lemonade from lemons, dollars out of fifteen cents, and quilts out of old rags.
Regardless of class or status, when you thought of these people, you think of people who possessed a deep sense of pride. And, you know what? That’s radical.
In this city, North Nashville was the birthplace of the radical.
It is the home of why Nashville is called, Music City. We know them as the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Nashville is the home of hot chicken, before the gentrification of Prince’s delicious recipe. Nashville is the reason great entertainers like Jimi Hendrix and Lil’ Richie are who they are—they honed their skills in Black-owned bars and clubs along Nashville’s Jefferson Street..
Nashville is the home of great educational institutions from American Baptist Theological Seminary (American Baptist College), Fisk University, Meharry, and A & I State College (Tennessee State University).
This place is radical because “Out North,” is where many knew it was okay to be Black, intelligent, communal, political, spiritual, and creative—flaws and all.
We all can possess a passion to be radical. Black folks have a history of being radical because, in many cases, it was the only way we survived from generation to generation. The work was done underground that radicality made a place that seemed insignificant to others what it is today.
The rich tradition of North Nashville is a celebration of the African American history of Nashville and Jefferson Street in the areas of athletics, civil rights, education, music, and religion.
While it is important for this generation to also celebrate it through economic sustenance, we should also consider the spirit of innovation that lingers from years of being radical when our parents and their parents had no other choice.
We can no longer leave our radicality outside ivory towers, boutique hotels, or comfortable places of prestige and let those places destroy us. It’s time we remember from when we came and re-claim our radicality through our service and work in the community.
As one of the last natives still in Nashville, Eric Brown is a mix of community connector and strategic thinker. With a passion for the North Nashville community, he believes service is the rent we pay in being grateful for the life we live.