October’s Lyrics of the Month

Welcome to the first in a continuing series that highlights the memories and messages of our favorite songs here in The Bottom:

Title: “Thieves in the Night”
Album: Mos Def & Talib Kweli Are Black Star
Artist: Black Star

not strong, only aggressive
not free, we only licensed
not compassionate, only polite
now who’s the nicest?
not good, but well-behaved
chasin after death
so we can call ourselves brave?
still livin like mental slaves
hidin like thieves in the night from life,
illusions of oasis makin you look twice

The lyrics to “Thieves in the Night” spoke to me a few years ago when I first heard the track on Black Star’s album. The words were so raw and real.  And never did they ring more true to me then when I lived in Atlanta, Georgia for a few years after college. (Listen to Mos Def performing the song live.)

I loved Atlanta. I lived in Decatur, a suburb right outside of the city.  I’d attended a historically black college and never took for granted the comfort of going to school with people who looked like me; black students, professors, and administrators.  It boosted my self-esteem and enhanced my class performance.  Atlanta was simply a continuation of this experience, the inevitable migration point for the distinguished alumni of the HBCU diaspora.

There was something so incredibly comforting about going to the grocery store and seeing black doctors in their scrubs shopping for salad dressing. And I always felt a sense of pride when I saw black children riding bicycles through beautifully, landscaped mega-mansion neighborhoods.  I had truly arrived in the Black Mecca.

Or had I?

Shortly after arriving in Atlanta, I began working as a paralegal for a non-profit, homeless law center.  Day in and day out I interviewed and counseled clients that looked just like me. And if I didn’t see their face in my reflection, I saw the faces of my father, my uncles, my sisters, or my mother. Many of them, like many of my classmates, had also taken the pilgrimage to Atlanta’s Mecca in an effort to take hold of its promises of opportunity.

Yet, instead of opportunity, many found poverty. They found rising housing costs and an employment market that didn’t reward non-skilled labor or a high school diploma. As a result, many fell between the cracks in Peachtree Avenue, unable to navigate the increasingly, elitist landscape of the city. Some of my clients were natives of Atlanta who sat by on the sidelines while the better educated and more privileged class of Atlanta immigrants enjoyed all of the sweetness that the southern, Chocolate City had to offer them.

“What’s to complain about in the Black Mecca? Black people are doing it big down there!” my friends would often ask. Black Star’s words sum it up perfectly.  We were not free, we were only licensed. We were not compassionate, only polite….still livin’ like mental slaves.

Somewhere along the way, we’d lost ourselves in the Black Mecca; praying to the gods of Lenox, Phipps, and Buckhead.

Yet, we were only doing what everyone for years told us that we were supposed to do. Go to school, get a good education, get a good job and buy a big house.  But what good were these licenses, if we weren’t somehow using them to reach back to lift our people up? Why did we think that we’d all arrived on Highway 85 free of all moral obligation? We could no longer see the people that slept in the parks that we passed by on our way to our downtown office buildings. We saw and heard reports about the growing population of black, poor and homeless people in the city; yet, we were too busy making sure that we had VIP tickets to the latest Hot-Lanta night spot. Not compassionate, only polite…hidin’ like thieves in the night from life, illusions of oasis, makin’ you look twice.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by KD on October 11, 2008 at 2:42 AM

    Very interesting Frieda!

    It’s rare to hear someone articulate the great divide that’s painfully pervasive in our community today. Much like a rusty coin that we serendipitously stumble upon, our community shows two sides with an apparent equal value.

    On the one side, there’re the educated elite that drive luxury vehicles that never travel down the road from which their success was made possible or plausible. They vacation in Cancun, sit in their reserved seats at Mega-Churches-R-Us and only eat fried chicken and grits when white people aren’t lookin’.

    On the other, there’re those who would rather “keep it real” than keep it progressive. They’ve got $200 on their feet, gold on their teeth, weed on their breath and my wallet in their sagging back pockets.

    Two sides, equal value.

    This is the dichotomy that was left behind by the “movement”?

    Please, continue…………. unite us.

    Reply

  2. Frieda, I enjoyed reading your post. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t also point out that many of the lyrics of “Thieves in the Night” are based on Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. Just like the song, passages like this one (below) from Morrison’s novel really forced me to look inward and consider how abstract ideas of freedom and goodness are applied in my everyday life:

    “And fantasy it was, for we were not strong, only aggressive; we were not free, merely licensed; we were not compassionate, we were polite; not good, but well behaved. We courted death in order to call ourselves brave, and hid like thieves from life” (205).

    @KD:
    Thanks for visiting our site! While I hear what you’re saying, your comment ironically indicates that there is more to our community that the two sides you mentioned. What about the hard-working folks like yourself who keep it real by using your money responsibly, drive an affordable car and just saying no to drugs (I’m guessing)? I would like to think that we can also credit the Civil Rights Movement for inspiring progressive folks as well.

    Reply

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