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  • Writer's pictureDeric Hollings

Letter to My Countrymen

 

 

Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color

 

Decisively, my favorite track from lyricist Brother Ali is “Letter to My Countrymen.” Produced by Jake One and featuring a spoken outro by Cornel West, the song has the power to make me irrationally tear up—something very few ballads have ever been able to do.

 

Before going further with examination of the track from a Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) perspective, I think it’s worth briefly discussing cover art for Ali’s 2012 album Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color, an LP on which “Letter to My Countrymen” is contained.

 

Brother Ali is a Muslim and instead of using a prayer mat, he’s depicted kneeling on the United States (U.S.) flag—which is positioned backwards—while praying. Whether intentional or not, this orientation generally represents flag positioning to appear as though it’s flying forward.

 

The symbolism represents hope, in that the flag is advancing into the feature. It’s also used as a sign of respect. Juxtapose this with the fact that the flag is lying on the ground and being kneeled upon, which is disrespectful imagery, and one can infer that the album cover is meant to be controversial.

 

A few points of interest

 

Because of my reverence for “Letter to My Countrymen,” I will examine the track without disrupting intact verses. Before proceeding further, it may be useful to note a few points of interest.

 

First, I’ve found myself on differing sides of this track. Ali’s perspective in the song relates to that of sociopolitical activism. During different stages of my life, I’ve shared sentiment of Ali at times, opposed his views at other times, and remained altogether neutral at different times.

 

Second, the reader is invited to pay close attention to statements related to demandingness which are derivatives of should, must, or ought-type declarations. For instance, saying that one “better” do something or stating that people “got to” behave a certain way is a form of demandingness.

 

Last, I was raised not to actively participate in politics. Although I’ve distanced myself from many of the teachings under which I was brought up, I maintain some of these principles which serve my interests and goals. As an example, in a blogpost entitled Preacher, I stated:

 

Thankfully, the lessons of the Jehovah’s Witnesses taught me to maintain political neutrality. I’m not personally responsible or accountable for slick talking politicians. To me, many of them behave as though they’re deceitful preachers and unscrupulous pimps.

 

Simply because I don’t vote, some people erroneously believe that I have no right to provide commentary on political matters. I disagree and maintain that my almost 11 years of military service suggest that I’ve earned the ability to comment on matters related to the government.

 

“Letter to My Countrymen”

 

“Letter to My Countrymen” begins with a simple chorus that expresses, “Sooner or later.” Stated at the beginning of the song and repeated between each major verse, I interpret the expression as an advisement that even if action isn’t occurring immediately; it’s like inevitable to happen at some point.

 

Brother Ali begins his first verse by stating:

 

I used to think I hated this place

Couldn’t wait to tell the President straight to his face

But lately I changed; nowadays I embrace it all

Beautiful ideals and amazing flaws

Got to care enough to give a testament

‘Bout the deeply depressing mess we’re in

It’s home, so we better make the best of it

I wanna make this country what it says it is

Still dream in the vividest living color

No matter how many times my love been smothered

Who’s ever above us won’t just let us suffer

All of this struggling got to amount to something

This is a letter to my countrymen

Especially those my age and younger than

We’re up against an ugly trend

Everybody’s hustling, don’t nobody touch their friends

No group singing and dancing

No anthem, nobody holds hands, and...

Instead they give you a handheld

And make you shoulder life’s burden by your damn self

One thing that can’t be debated

Power never changed on its own; you got to make it

That’s why community is so sacred

That’s the symbol that we make when we raise fists

 

I was brought up to respect the government though to take no part in its function. In adolescence, I favored music that contained anti-government messaging, such as lyricist Spice 1’s album AmeriKKKa’s Nightmare.

 

I, too, thought I hated the U.S. After graduating high school, my attitude slightly changed and out of partial rebellion to my dad’s Jehovah’s Witnesses indoctrination, I joined the U.S. Marine Corps.

 

After receiving graduate-level education in the field of behavioral health and learning about the techniques of REBT, I began practicing unconditional acceptance. This afforded me an opportunity to determine as Ali expressed, “I changed; nowadays I embrace it all—beautiful ideals and amazing flaws.”

 

In fact, it was around the time I underwent my second graduate program that I became more activist-minded. As Ali stated, “It’s home, so we better make the best of it; I wanna make this country what it says it is,” his sentiment succinctly summed up my determination.

 

I didn’t want to move from the U.S., as so many people claim they’ll do whenever a president with whom they disagree is elected. If one’s house is on fire, though not fully engulfed in flames, it may be worth sticking around to extinguish the blaze and repair damage—no matter how many times one’s love for country has been smothered by an inferno.

 

One aspect from which I divert regarding “Letter to My Countrymen” is Ali’s suggestion, “Who’s ever above us won’t just let us suffer; all of this struggling got to amount to something.” Setting aside the notion that I see no evidence of a deity, I disagree that suffering in and of itself has “got to” amount to anything.

 

Rather, I assert that one can find purpose and meaning not necessarily inherent or readily evident in the challenges of life. Admittedly, this humanistic proposal isn’t one with which those of religious faiths may agree.

 

Minor quibble aside, I appreciate how Brother Ali advocates community-building while criticizing the use of handheld devices—which I suspect serve as a means of distraction from matters in life that are of deeper importance. Although one can “shoulder life’s burden” alone, it’s virtually incontestable that doing so is more difficult than with the support of others.

 

As well, and despite what those in my inner-most circle may suspect, I value Ali’s conclusion, “Power never changed on its own; you got to make it. That’s why community is so sacred, that’s the symbol that we make when we raise fists.”

 

Although I prefer not actively participating in so-called communities, I make no secret of the fact that I have a raised fist tattoo on my body. Two opposing things can be true at once—I can simultaneously eschew the collective while also valuing the importance of community.

 

Brother Ali’s second verse is as follows:

 

We don’t really like to talk about the race thing

The whole grandparents used to own slaves thing

Pat ourselves on the back in February

Looking at pictures of Abe Lincoln and the great King

But the real picture’s much more embarrassing

We’re still not even close to really sharing things

The situation of oppressed people

Shows what we feel it means to be a human being

What does it mean to be American?

I think the struggle to be free is our inheritance

And if we say it how it really is

We know our lily skin still give us privilege

Advantage is given to the few

That are built into the roots of our biggest institutions

That’s the truth in life we got to choose

“Do I fight in the movement or think I’m entitled to it?”

This is not a practice life

This is the big game; we got to attack it right

This old crooked world won’t be saved by the passive type

This is a letter to my countrymen

Not from a Democrat or a Republican

But one among ya

That’s why you call me “Brother”

Ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble, ‘cause I love you

 

The race issue is a matter I’ve gone back and forth on over the course of my life. At times, I’ve assumed an Ice Cube-esque “My Skin is My Sin” perspective. Currently, I value the color blind approach of Martin Luther King Jr., referenced in “Letter to My Countrymen.”

 

Personally, I think hyper-fixation on immutable characteristics and other aspects related to identity sows division in the U.S. rather than uniting our states. As such, I value that Brother Ali asks, “What does it mean to be American?”

 

Setting aside a trivial objection with his use of the term “American”—because North, Central, and South American citizens comprise the American population—I think it’s worthwhile for U.S. citizens to answer what it means to be part of a unified system of states.

 

From my understanding of Ali’s allusion to “oppressed people,” white privilege is merely one sliver of a larger metaphorical pie representing oppression. Even if the lyricist may disagree with me, I maintain that black people, women, and other historically marginalized people can also serve as oppressors.

 

And as text accompanying the aforementioned raised fist tattoo states, “No one is free when others are oppressed.” Considering this proposal, I agree with Brother Ali’s assertion that as a nation “the struggle to be free is our inheritance.”

 

Clearing the hurdle of what it means to be a citizen of this nation, Ali’s next major query warrants address. “Do I fight in the movement or think I’m entitled to it?”

 

What does it mean to fight against oppression? What movement is currently focused on this action? Does mere citizenship status afford one an entitlement to liberty and benefits? Is it perhaps that service—in a movement or otherwise—guarantees one’s claim to entitlement?

 

These questions will be mostly ignored as long as people squabble over which race was historically enslaved. Meanwhile, advantages which “are built into the roots of our biggest institutions” benefit the few while the masses suffer.

 

Noteworthy, Brother Ali provides a substantial lesson on existentialism by stating, “This is not a practice life. This is the big game; we got to attack it right. Each one of us is headed for the grave.”

 

When working with clients using REBT, I incorporate existential lessons of this sort into my practice. This is because petty bickering about matters such as identity may serve little more than the fueling of irrational beliefs which serve as obstacles to a meaningful life.

 

Brother Ali expresses to the listener, “This is a letter to my countrymen, not from a Democrat or a Republican.” To me, political identities can serve as major drawbacks to the overall health of individuals.

 

I’m not a Democrat, Republican, progressive, or conservative. Likewise, I’m not affiliated with leftwing, rightwing, independent, or libertarian sociopolitical movements.

 

Nevertheless, I maintain views aligned with some of these parties and movements. Similar to Ali’s assertion, I “ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble,” even though I don’t love people I don’t know—contrary to Brother Ali’s expressed motivation.

 

Because I practice REBT in my personal and professional life, I understand the importance of acknowledging the limitation of my control and influence. All the same, I share a country with people and comprehend the need to be civil with one another.

 

Therefore, I have no issue with sharing my opinion: as a nation, we’re in trouble. As the chorus of “Letter to My Countrymen” indicates, “Sooner or later” accounting for the unproductive behavior of individual countrymen and politicians who represent us may prove more costly than we can afford. Like Ali, I’m not afraid to tell you this.

 

Brother Ali’s third verse continues:

 

They tell me I’m a dreamer; they ridicule

They feel defeated, old, bitter, and cynical

Excuse me, but I see it from a different view

I still believe in what a driven few could really do

I know that the masses want to sleep

And they would just rather hear me rapping to the beat

But I want to pass this planet to my son

A little better than it was when they handed it to me

So, I wrote a letter to my countrymen

I’ll be happy if it only reaches one of them

Reporting live, A-L-I, your brother

Mourning in America, dreaming in color

 

Ali challenges the perspective of his critics by stating, “I still believe in what a driven few could really do.” This is an expression of hope and is the antidote to sociopolitical nihilism and fatalism.

 

Throughout my life, with waxing and waning support for sentiment expressed in “Letter to My Countrymen,” I’ve consistently valued the sentiment of Ali as he states, “I want to pass this planet to my son a little better than it was when they handed it to me.”

Although I once had a stepdaughter, I have no children of my own. Still, for over three decades, I’ve sought to help people improve their lives. If I could contribute to bettering this world to where it’s enhanced to a level above where it was when I was born, for me that would be a life worth living.

 

Noteworthy, I’m not attempting to change the world as a whole. Rather, I work with individuals so that I can help them get better. Perhaps my effort may be in vain. Nonetheless, as Brother Ali concluded, “I’ll be happy if it only reaches one of them.”

 

“Letter to My Countrymen” finishes with Cornel West talking:

 

My dear Brother Ali, I think you know deep down in your soul that something, something just ain’t right. You don’t want to be just well adjusted to injustice and well adapted to indifference. You want to be a person with integrity who leaves a mark on the world. People can say when you go that you left the world just a little better than you found it. I understand. I want to be like that, too.

 

At times in my higher educational history, I was onboard with much of what West advocates. Currently, I support some of his aims. Subtle differences aside, I’m all for leaving this world a litter better than it was before I arrived.

 

Conclusion

 

Mourning in America and Dreaming in Color is a matter of controversy for an assortment of reasons too complex to dive into at present. Rather than droning on about each song, herein I’ve selected to examine “Letter to My Countrymen” and its application to my own life.

 

Granted, I no longer support the cause of activism. As well, I challenge demandingness. Also, I don’t actively participate in political processes. Nevertheless, I think that what Ali and I have to say is worth considering for those people who retain interest in a better quality of life.

 

Worth stating, when carefully assuring that the written lyrics of “Letter to My Countrymen” were accurate representations of the song, I irrationally teared up. There’s passion within me that may not make sense on a logical and reasonable level.

 

For my human fallibility, I’m grateful. After all, not having a fully developed rational explanation for all things is part of what it means to be human.

 

Correspondingly, I scrutinize my beliefs to keep from experiencing unhelpful emotional, bodily sensation, and behavioral outcomes. For instance, I don’t tell myself, “All the struggling inherent in life has to amount to something; otherwise, life itself is an altogether miserable condition!”

 

Self-disturbance of that sort wouldn’t serve me well. Therefore, I practice REBT so that I may lead to effective new beliefs about the state of the nation.

 

As an example, I tell myself, “While I hope my message reaches people so that they may improve their lives and ultimately—with enough people working towards self-improvement, they may leave the world a better place than it was when they were born—there is no obligation of anyone to satisfy my desire.”

 

This flexible belief fosters ambition though doesn’t lead to unpleasant consequences if or when my aspiration is unsuccessful. Indeed, this is a letter to my countrymen—not from a Democrat or a Republican—I ain’t scared to tell you we’re in trouble.

 

So, instead of needlessly venting about it, let’s take moral, ethical, and legal action to address the issues we face. This behavior starts with focus on the self. In this way, would you like to know more about how to address your own issues?

 

If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.

 

As the world’s foremost old school hip hop REBT psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.

 

At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!

 

 

Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW

 

References:

 

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