Tag Archives: Ray Charles

Police shootings: Finding answers among Seven Spanish Angels

15 Oct

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There’s a song called “Seven Spanish Angels” that makes you feel sorry for the protagonist, who probably is a killer.

 

When you hear the song you don’t think of him as evil or bad. Instead, you sympathize with him.

 

The subject of the song is a Mexican outlaw. Alone with his woman, he is trying to make a stand against a posse and vows that this time he will not be taken back to Texas alive. As he battles on, Seven Spanish Angels at the Altar of the Sun wait to receive him once he is killed in the Valley of the Gun.  And he is killed, along with his woman, who points an empty pistol at the posse so they are sure to kill her, too

 

It’s tragic.

 

The love of the man for the woman, along with her devotion to him, and his weariness and his struggle, and the sympathy of the Spanish Angels, makes you believe that maybe he is innocent.

 

Perhaps you even think he is you.

 

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Willie Nelson recorded the song with Ray Charles and you can hear it here.  It’s a great tune, but it is not life. In life, we more often think the worst of people rather than the best. This is especially true if the people are not like us. Even in the song, it requires Spanish angels to look after a Hispanic, suggesting that Anglo angels don’t much care.

 

True understanding takes a rare kind of wisdom born of diverse experience.

 

A character in a French film, the name of which I’ve forgotten, has that kind of wisdom. He is a retired judge who befriends a young woman. In a melancholy moment, he tells her, “Many people have come before me in court, and many I’ve sent to prison. Yet in every case, had I been in their situation, I would have done the same as they did.”

 

Makes me wonder what I would do if I were among those who worry every time a police officer approaches, even if I’m just sitting on my front porch. If my life could be taken at any time by an officer of the law, and for no good reason, could I be silent and passive while waiting for change?

 

I tend to think I could not. My reaction would edge toward protest and revolt. I know there are people like me who would take up arms rather than submit to this kind of treatment.

 

But not actually being subject to it, and believing it can never happen to them, those who would arm themselves can’t comprehend how the real victims could possibly do the same.

 

When someone is not like us, we can’t see their humanness. Beyond that, we ascribe all sorts of sub-human qualities to them.

 

Not long ago, I met a former NFL assistant coach, a big, powerful man who came close to tears telling a story of someone who once didn’t think much of him.

 

In the story, the future coach is attending a small college where the typical student came from a small town or farming community. The coach was not typical. Relevant to the story are these facts: He is black, good at math and a frequent hand washer.

 

One semester he tutored math to a white student who fit the school’s rural profile. At their final session, the white student expressed sincere appreciation and said he had learned more than just math. He said he discovered that something taught to him all his life – that black people lack intelligence and are dirty – was just not true.

 

The coach, in telling the story, said that if people just got together more the walls of division and hate would crumple.

 

He makes a good point. But even with more mixing, there sometimes can be an element of protective posturing that confounds true understanding. We’ve got to break through that as well.

 

Which brings me to another song, a 1961 hit called “The Bristol Stomp.”

 

There really is a place called Bristol and the Stomp (a dance) was first done there. The song says, “The kids in Bristol are sharp as a pistol when they do the Bristol Stomp.” I grew up not too far from Bristol and I can tell you that in the early ‘60s the kids in Bristol weren’t just sharp, they were required by some unwritten code to be utterly and fantastically cool.

 

Even the older men – all the Italians and about half the Irish – thought they were Sinatra.

 

There was a walk and a talk; a way of standing and a way of dressing. Outer toughness was always present. My neighborhood was nothing like this.  Bristol was a kind of threat to us. If there was going to be a fight at a high school basketball game, we’d prefer it not be with Bristol. For lack of coolness, we would never think of dating their girls (although I once did and it was great).

 

They acted superior and we bought it.

 

Yet they were destined to end up working in the local steel mill and we were destined for college. Their defense mechanisms could only get them so far.

 

What surprised me was when, through a part-time job, I actually got to know a couple of kids from Bristol. Their veneer suddenly became transparent.  They weren’t much different from me. Fears, worries, hopes, dreams – all about the same. Some weren’t even tough – or cool.

I came to understand them, rather than fear them.

 

The Seven Spanish Angels looked after and rooted for their Mexican brother because they had something in common with him. They recognized the difficulty of his life and sympathized with him. But outside of songs, there are no Spanish angels. Angels have no nationality or culture. At the Altar of the Sun, there is only universal compassion. It is for everyone because everyone in the human brotherhood is deserving of it.

 

Down here in the Valley of the Gun, it is most important to learn the sameness of our species rather than the unimportant differences. It is much harder to aim a deadly weapon at someone when you can see yourself on the other side of the barrel.

 

And so I add a few words to the conversation, one that will take a great deal more than words to resolve.

Lanny Morgnanesi

 

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