“Killed Just for Living in Your American Skin”: Bruce Springsteen and the Role of the Artist in the Nation’s Racial Reckoning by Christopher Pramuk
It has long been my conviction that artists have a unique and potentially transformative role in bending “the long arc of the moral universe” toward justice. James Baldwin, Maya Angelou, Nina Simone, Thomas Merton, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Woody Guthrie, Phil Ochs, and yes, Bruce Springsteen, as I want to suggest here. “Artists are here to disturb the peace,” Baldwin famously observed, by which he meant a false and illusory peace, the complacent veneer that hides injustice against our fellow citizens and neighbors. The disciples asked, with much bewilderment, “Lord, when did we see you hungry, naked, imprisoned?” (Matt. 25:31–40) More than the statisticians and social scientists, it is the poets and artists who unmask the lie, who point to the suffering of Christ in our neighbor.
In the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery (February 23, 2020), Breonna Taylor (March 13, 2020), and George Floyd (May 25, 2020), many white Americans are coming to grips with hard truths that are by no means new, which are not “newsworthy,” but which reflect, rather, what Hannah Arendt called “the banality of evil.” Where political and academic discourse tends to deal in statistical and categorical abstractions, the artist, much in the way of Jesus, captures our attention with the concrete particular: a wedding banquet, a bit of leaven, a mustard seed. While the broad insights of social science and political critique are tremendously important, it is the story, more than the statistic, that can simultaneously reveal our immeasurable beauty and potentiality even while tearing off the guise of “innocence,” our imprisonment in unjust systems that continue to crush our neighbor, and in which “good folks like me” are silently complicit.
Two years before the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Bruce Springsteen wrote a song called “American Skin (41 Shots)” in response to the shooting of an African immigrant named Amadou Diallo by plainclothes NYPD officers. The song is built around a kind of mantra, repeating the number of bullets fired into Diallo’s body—“Forty-one shots, forty one shots, forty one shots”—a number that seems “to gauge the size of our betrayal of one another,” as Springsteen writes in his 2016 autobiography, Born to Run. Diallo was killed while reaching for his wallet, foreshadowing many more such deaths in communities of color at the hands of police in the decades to come. The live version of the song is well worth viewing.
The first verse imagines the scene, and sympathetically, from one of the police officers’ perspectives: “Kneeling over his body in the vestibule / praying for his life.” In the second verse, a mother is getting her young son ready for school, trying to impress upon him the gravity of the most innocent actions, such as reaching for a wallet, or taking one’s hands off the steering wheel during a traffic stop. “She says now on these streets Charles, you got to understand the rules.”
The song’s bridge—“Is it in your heart, is it in your eyes”—asks us to consider how our own prejudices may contribute, as Springsteen puts it, to the “daily compounding of crimes, large and small, against one another.” The third verse says perhaps what Springsteen says best in his socially oriented songs: like it or not, we belong to each other “in the land of brotherly fear.” “We’re baptized in these waters and in each other’s blood . . . It ain’t no secret, no secret my friend. You can get killed just for living in your American skin.”
The release of “American Skin” angered a lot of people, not least law enforcement officers in New York and New Jersey. As Springsteen recalls, “It truly pissed people off.” Why? In part because it was an internal critique: these were his people, after all, the cops and first responders he would honor just a few years later in his post-9/11 album, The Rising, and more broadly, the working class (white) Americans with whom Springsteen had grown up in Freehold, New Jersey. A number of police groups called for a boycott of his performances at New York City’s Madison Square Garden, and officers working security detail for the band made their displeasure quite clear, in a number of colorful New York ways.
One night in June of 2000, after performing “American Skin” at the Garden, the parents of Amadou Diallo came to see him backstage, as Springsteen remembers it, “two elegant and beautiful Africans who in gentle voices spoke a little of Amadou and thanked me for writing about their son.” A few days later, an elderly black woman approached him as he was walking down the street in Red Bank, New Jersey. “They just don’t want to hear the truth,” she said. And there were, after all, a few police officers who thanked him, saying that they understood what he was saying in the song. “American Skin,” Springsteen concludes, “brought me just a little closer to the black community I always wished I’d served better.”
Few artists wield the kind of influence Springsteen carries as a public figure. Still, there are some insights that ordinary “folks like us,” not least white Christians and Catholics, might draw from his artistry with respect to laboring for justice and healing in our society.
A first point, noted above, is the power of internal critique, and with respect to white Americans, in particular, the need for witness among “our own.” For at least 60 years and much longer, black artists, preachers, theologians, and public intellectuals have been wondering where the prophetic voices for racial justice are to be found among their white colleagues.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail”—one of the most important political and religious documents of 20th-century America—Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. considered the irony of being accused by his fellow white Christian ministers of being an “extremist.” Perhaps we need a few more creative “extremists for love,” he shot back, recalling that Jesus of Nazareth was similarly accused in his time by the religious and political “keepers of the peace.”
The point is, the public silence and passivity of white Christians in the face of stubborn racial disparities continues to speak volumes to those communities of color, our brothers and sisters in Christ, who remain most vulnerable and threatened in our time. Add to this the appalling ignorance of Americans of all races—including our current president—with respect to African American, Native American, Latino American, Asian American history, and so on. In truth, these histories are also, plain and simple, US history, our collective family story. Truly we are “baptized in each other’s blood,” literally and metaphorically, yet too few Americans care to acknowledge from where, and from whom, we have come as a diverse immigrant people. The same can be said of the multicultural history and beautifully diverse face of Catholic Church in the United States.
A second point follows. Whatever may be our communities of identity and commitment, if we are not occasionally “pissing people off,” if we are not meeting with some degree of resistance in our work, if the choices we make never bring us into conflict with the prevailing powers of society—to say nothing of family and friends, where the most visceral pushback to change often arises—we might ask ourselves whether we are doing the hard work for justice and reconciliation that needs to be done. To what extent are we building relationships beyond our comfortable circles of kinship that might bear fruit for the transformation of our society toward true equity and equality under the law, with full access to the common good?
Consider Springsteen’s friendship with E Street Band saxophonist Clarence Clemons, with whom he shared an iconic stage presence and some 30 years of musical collaboration. It is hard to imagine that Springsteen’s plaintive wish to have “served better” the black community is not partly rooted in the mutual respect and love he shared with “The Big Man,” as Clemons was affectionately known, a friendship that endured from 1972 until Clemons’s death in 2011.
A third point follows. None of us will ever be perfectly heroic in our capacity to love and labor for a more just society over the course of our lifetimes. Like most of the characters in Springsteen’s songs, no person’s life—just as no nation’s history—is unambiguously heroic. No matter your race or economic status, no matter your political persuasion or religious commitments, we all navigate the uneasy fault lines between sin and grace, blindness and sight, fear and love, imprisonment and freedom.
In Springsteen’s telling, it is not the perfectly heroic life or high-profile actions where light and hope typically breaks through. Fragments of light find their way through in the struggle itself, day in and day out, even and especially when we do not see immediate results. The long arc of the moral universe bends toward justice insofar as our efforts, as we confess in faith, are guided by grace. As Dr. King never tired of repeating, “Everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don’t have to have a college degree to serve. You don’t have to make your subject and verb agree to serve. You only need a heart full of grace. A soul generated by love.”
I still marvel at how young Dr. King was when first thrust into the national spotlight during the Montgomery bus boycotts. As admirers and critics alike have noted, King was a flawed man, an imperfect hero. But clearly, he understood and accepted the costs of Christian love and nonviolent resistance far more than most. And on the eve of his death, he committed himself to keep fighting in the face of fear and apparent failure. As one eyewitness described his last sermon in Memphis, April 3, 1968, the breathtaking “I’ve been to the mountaintop” sermon, “He preached himself through the fear of death that night.”
No person, famous or hidden, can pass through a human life without some cross to bear. In his autobiography, Springsteen confesses that he has been “crushed” by periods of severe depression throughout his adult life. It may not be for us to taste victory on this side of death, but Springsteen’s music reminds us that we can, if we so choose, help one another bear our respective crosses with greater empathy and patience, forbearance and grace.
To my mind, herein lies the dark beauty of “American Skin.” If only for the duration of song, we are drawn into “an ongoing dialogue about what living means,” as Springsteen puts it. We are “involved in an act of the imagination together, imagining the life you want to live, the kind of country you want to live in, the kind of place you want to leave your children.”
It is now 52 years since King’s assassination, and 22 years since Springsteen wrote “American Skin.” It has to be said that there are many honorable police officers protecting their jurisdictions, courageously and often heroically, under tremendously difficult circumstances. To our police and their families, who share the risks of their service, we owe much gratitude. But in the aftermath of repeated killings of unarmed black men, women, and sometimes children, against the repeated failures of the state to hold officers accountable for the violation of black and brown bodies, we have to ask: What kind of country do we want to live in? What kind of place do we want to leave our children?
Dare we hope that the sustained protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd represent a tipping point? And who are the artists and poets in our time who stir our latent capacity for empathy and courage, even while unmasking the illusion of “peace” and unveiling the face of Christ in our neighbor?
What have you done? Your brother’s blood is crying out to me from the ground (Gen. 4:10). It defies the thin veneer of American innocence that in 2020, you can still get killed just for living in your American skin. That cold hard fact is a scandal and blasphemy that cries out to heaven, a slow-motion nightmare that only begins to measure the size of our betrayal of one another. May the witness of our suffering neighbors, brothers and sisters in Christ and children of one God, deepen our commitment to one another, rekindle our imagination, and move our feet into action.
Christopher Pramuk is Chair of Ignatian Thought and Imagination and Associate Professor of Theology at Regis University in Denver. This article is adapted from his most recent book, The Artist Alive: Explorations in Music, Art and Theology (Anselm Academic, 2019).
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