How Music Helped Create a Black Birthday Party Fit for a “King”

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Macmillan Employee
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There are two experiences that have always been important to the history and legacy of struggle and perseverance in the lives of Black people. Sunday morning in the Black church represents a coming together once a week, under song and sermon, to express the pain of the past, the possibilities of the moment, and the hopes of dreams deferred. We come together, under the watchful eye of God, to seek what the world could not offer us–the divine validation to keep living. However, another experience presents a different moment of expression: birthdays. 

Like so many aspects of Black life in America, birthdays are often an opportunity to celebrate not only the individual milestones in a person’s life, but also the collective joy, love, and victories experienced by the family and even the entire community. For as long as I can remember, in every Black family that I was ever connected with, including my own, I witnessed this sense of freedom and liberated expression that came out most prominently during a birthday celebration. Children clothed in untamed innocence, dignified and decorated members of the community, and elders worn with wisdom all took center stage on their birthday. In front of the whole family, in the presence of beloved friends, neighborhood buddies, sister circles of Black women together again–there is a rare and beautiful moment in the Black experience where you are a king, a queen, a conqueror, a celebrity, and a showman for an audience all your own.   

The birthday celebration, no matter the length of time or the location, becomes this transformative moment where you can transcend your vocation, rise above your station, live larger and broader than your title allows, and totally immerse yourself in the full embodiment of freedom. Through the centuries of celebrations, Black people have always found a way to celebrate each other, collectively, under the backdrop of a world, a society, a community not willing to acknowledge the whole beauty of our identity. So, the birthday celebration has become this right that we give ourselves to say, among ourselves and to ourselves, we are spectacular and born with purpose. 

Now I grew up in the eighties, and by that time, the birthday celebration in Black life had shifted to take on an even greater meaning. Since the 1970s, many Americans had been campaigning for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday to become a national holiday. Several states enacted holidays on his birthday in the 70’s, including Illinois, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, but Congress stopped short of passing a national day into law. In November 1979, despite the endorsement of President Carter, the King Holiday Bill was defeated by five votes. But then something incredible happened that changed everything. The superstar Stevie Wonder stepped in and changed the national consciousness about the importance of Dr. King to the American legacy of freedom, and in the process, added an important element for Black people to channel into our birthday celebrations. 

After the 1979 defeat of the bill, Wonder wrote “Happy Birthday” and included it on his “Hotter Than July” album of 1980. He held the Rally for Peace press conference in 1981, when the song was released as a single. His song became the anthem for the movement to make Dr. King’s birthday a national holiday and, in late 1983, President Ronald Reagan approved the holiday, to be observed on the third Monday in January each year. The campaign to get the holiday federally acknowledged seemed to be doomed as the decade changed. It looked as if the American sense of justice and freedom was too bruised and tattered from the riots and uprisings in American cities following the assassination of Dr. King on April 4, 1968. That’s when Stevie Wonder did something “wondrous", as his stage name implies–he took the best of the atoning hope of Sunday morning in the Black church and fused it with the lively love of a Black birthday party, fit for a “king”. 

Stevie Wonder gave us an anthem to celebrate, not only Dr. King’s beauty and his spirit, but the singer/songwriter gave Black America another conduit to collectively celebrate ourselves each year on our own birthdays. We had permission to fully clothe ourselves in the dignity of Dr. King’s dream. Even if we were not there and we were born too late to remember his image on television or his voice on the radio, we could march with him, laugh with him, cry with him, dance with him, and sing with him in a moment that we owned in the presence of others who valued freedom.

And so as the ritual goes, ever since I was a boy, the normal American birthday tradition would start at some point during the birthday celebration–seated or standing, with close family and friends, someone would come from behind the veil of a kitchen with a birthday cake lit and ready to be presented to the birthday celebrant. Everyone would gather around huddled closely, quietly singing the traditional Happy Birthday tune in unison. But at some point in the ritual, whether towards the end of the traditional song or after the candled wishes are made, everyone would break out in an explosive roar of Stevie Wonder’s tune, singing: “Happy Birthday to Ya! Happy Birthday to Ya! Happy Birth-Day!” Clapping and dancing, chanting and shouting, the space would be filled with the lyrics to Stevie’s song. 

You could fully recognize a shift in the energy and a shift between the two moods, and the two songs. The shift is always purposely done, as if to say that we as Black people live in two worlds and shift between consciousness–one consciousness that we’ve learned to understand and another higher consciousness where we are understood. And it is in that higher consciousness, at the height of song and dance, love and laughter, redemption and reflection that we embody on our birthdays, the last words spoken by Dr. King in his “I Have A Dream'' speech: “Free at Last, Free at Last…Thank God O’ Mighty, I’m free at Last!”   

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