Jazz singer Billie Holiday was one of the greatest female vocalists of her time. In 1948, Holiday sang to a sold-out crowd in Carnegie Hall. The venue broke its own record, with 2,700 tickets sold in advance. When she began to sing, she was met with “one of the most thunderous ovations ever given a performer in any concert hall.” Music critics called her “possibly the greatest singer of the century.”
In the late 1930s, Holiday was one of the first women of color to sing alongside a white orchestra. When speaking about the experience, she recalled, “I was never allowed to visit the bar or the dining room as did other members of the band, and I was made to leave and enter through the kitchen.” In November of 1938, when singing at the Lincoln Hotel, Holiday was asked to use the service elevator instead of the passage elevator, because white guests of the hotel had complained.
That was nearly 50 years before I was born, and I was raised to believe that people with different colored skin are entitled to exactly the same rights and privileges as I enjoy. In my childhood, we were taught that racism was morally reprehensible.
But what if I had been alive at that time? If I were working at a hotel where Billie Holiday sang, how would I have felt seeing this accomplished woman using “the colored entrance”, while I could come and go through any door I pleased? Would I have thought nothing of it? Would I have wished it were different, but bowed my head and remained silent?
What about 150 years ago, if I had been alive when men and women from Africa were bought and sold as chattel property? If I had been raised in a home where people of different colored skin lived alongside my family as our slaves, how would I have felt? Would I have accepted it as a given, like most people did? Would I have turned a blind eye to the blatant injustice of white ownership?
How about 75 years ago, if I had been living in Europe during Hitler’s reign of terror? Chances are, I would have been safe. But how would I have reacted when I found out what was going on in the camps? Would I have closed my eyes? Returned to the comfort of my life, and tried to go about my business as though the screams weren’t echoing in my ears?
I hope not.
I hope that I would have told every single person I could about my belief that no person of any race or creed should be subjected to the horrors of mass imprisonment and slaughter, that no one of any color should ever be bought and sold like an inanimate object, and that Billie Holiday and every one of her brothers and sisters should be free to use the same doors as the rest of us.
I hope that I would have done every single thing I could to try and spread the word of the horrors of slavery, and of segregation, and of genocide. I hope that I would have begged people to listen, that I would have told them again and again of the terrible crime that was being perpetrated, of the horrors that were being experienced, and of everything that we could do to try and put an end to them.
I hope that I would have been the kind of person to stand up to that kind of injustice, no matter the cost, because wrong is wrong no matter to whom it is being done, and right is right no matter how many people pretend that it’s not.
Now, in 2013, we have our own issues of social justice to be addressed, and the nonhuman victims of today’s oppression are crying out for emancipation. From factory farms and family farms, from laboratories to backyards, from pet stores and racing tracks to circuses and zoos, from oceans and rivers and forests and fields, the animal kingdom is begging us for mercy. And we continue to enslave, to kill, to imprison, to shackle, to castrate, to mutilate, to slaughter and butcher and devour these beautiful, mysterious beings who have done us no wrong.
How do we continue to live with ourselves?
When we look back on these dark years of animal oppression… When the time comes when we have to explain it to young people who have no knowledge of any such thing… When “animal farming” is but an unsettling expression in the history books, an unwelcome reminder of the misery we wish we could only forget… What do you want to be able to say about the part you played?
If, one day, you have to explain to a child what we used to do to the gentle creatures she has only known as friends, and she looks at you with dismay in her eyes, horrified by what she is hearing, and asks the question: Did you eat them? Did you wear shoes and clothes fashioned from their skin? Did you pay money for goods made out of their blood, their flesh, and milk that was meant for their murdered babies?
What will your answer be?
Did you stand up for the rights of the enslaved, the oppressed, the massacred? Did you withdraw your support for every single shameful service the exploitation industry provides? Did you speak up on behalf of the billions of innocent victims and plead with the rest of humanity to do the same?
Or did you go about your business like too many others, closing your eyes to the sights, covering your ears to the sounds, and continuing to take advantage? Did you wait to voice or even to acknowledge your contempt until the whole obscene business eventually caved in on itself? Did you add your effort to the fight only when everyone finally denounced the injustice?
When it does come to an end, and our nonhuman brethren are finally released from the torment we subject them to… which side of the struggle will you be able to say that you were on?