A Broken Contract, Empty Words, and an Unrealized Rebirth

Kameron Locke

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty…,” Abraham Lincoln famously began his brief speech to a crowd in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on November 19, 1863. Was it all wishful thinking, or were his stirring words meant to conjure the rebirth of a nation that was created through violence, theft, and enslavement? Although Lincoln’s opinion on the freedom and equality of Black Americans had evolved by 1863, his proposition, “that all men are created equal,” remains an illusion. Today, as politicians revive Lincoln’s legacy in an attempt to inflate their own self-image, and our leaders, states, and individuals strive to safeguard and enshrine a neo-Confederacy of the twenty-first century, it is clear that his words have fallen on deaf ears. In all earnest, has America grasped what equality for all, this allusive ideal, truly means? Lincoln voiced a hopeful promise, yet, as Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA suggests, this verbal contract, though inspirational, are empty words left unfulfilled.

Through much of his life, Lincoln’s views on racial equality were consistent with the United States’ majority white population. These beliefs, by any standard, were overtly prejudiced and racist. However, it is clear that while he struggled to achieve equality and justice for Black Americans, Lincoln’s attitudes towards Black Americans’ emancipation, voting, and rights improved beyond those of the nation he ruled. To illustrate and understand his radical growth, we turn to his 1858 speech at the Fourth Joint Debate in Charleston, Illinois, where he campaigned for the Illinois Senate seat held by Stephen A. Douglas:

I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races, that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of making voters or jurors of negroes, nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor to intermarry with white people; and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality…I will add to this that I have never seen, to my knowledge, a man, woman, or child who was in favor of producing a perfect equality, social and political, between negroes and white men.[1]

It is obvious that during these earlier years, Lincoln held the view that the African American population was undeserving of the same equal and inalienable rights as that of the white American population. However, within five years and continuing until his assassination, Lincoln’s views on race were transformed[2]. By 1863, he urged the need for the emancipation of Black Americans; by 1865, Lincoln supported equal political rights—considered one of the holy grails to American access and identity— between white and Black Americans, though only for men. Lincoln believed that for the United States to move towards a progressive nation-state and away from centuries of enslavement and violence, it would have to fight for and achieve racial equality. (It is, however, doubtful that as in our awareness of the twenty-first century, his progressive shift took fluid gender and sexual identities into account. As a queer, Black man, I would not have been treated as fairly and considered worthy of the same liberty as a straight, white, or Black man.)

In the public sphere, a white, male American president voluntarily expressed the need for a unified and reborn nation, a nation where the enslavement of Black bodies was no more, and “freedom” was assured for its’ citizens. Lincoln acknowledged that this country must move beyond its gross institutionalized traditions to gain “a new birth of freedom,” to finally achieve the equality proclaimed in the preludial Declaration of Independence. Lincoln’s evolution continued up to his assassination, as subsequent writing alludes to his increased support of Black Americans’ freedom and reparations. “Freedom” was eventually restored to the enslaved Africans who were born into slavery on the soil of this young nation, yet, has the rebirth of the United States come, now seven score and twelve years after Lincoln’s address?

A century later, Salvatore Martirano responded to Lincoln’s most often quoted speech, pointedly depicting his opinion based on the state of affairs at the time. He composed and birthed his 1968 L’s GA, a visual-audio critique of Lincoln’s oration, during a period of great strife for this nation, when it was glaringly evident to him that this rebirth was arrested at a prepubescent state. The United States found itself, once again, deadlocked in battles of freedom, equality, and sacrificed lives—on all fronts—abroad with the Vietnam War and at home with the African American Civil Rights Movement. I considered some of the battles that my birth country is currently facing, such as institutionalized and systemic racism, sexual and gender identity, wealth disparity, prison reform, as I approached creating my own take on Martirano’s L’s GA. Additionally, I questioned what the Gettysburg Address means now, its relevance, and its urgency related to our current political, racial, and societal affairs.

I admit that I entered this process—recording and self-producing a response to L’s GA—with trepidation. For me this was new territory, but I dedicated myself to creating something as a means of personal activism and protest. Considering the current reality, that a man stunted with his own prepubescent development was elected and has remained the leader of the United States amid constant controversy, xenophobia, racism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, bullying, and lies, I showed this through my visuals. Although Martirano’s original work is ambiguous, my reflection is a plainly evident assertion that Black people were and are still treated as human beings with revocable rights, regardless of context, education, appearance, sex, gender and age.

Global awareness of the racism and violence faced by Black people—in the United States and abroad—has reached an unimaginable level; therefore, I did not shy away from my immediate feelings. My feelings, since and before the unrest began in May 2020, include fear, sadness, pain, confusion, anger, defiance, and resilience. In my brief excerpted response, I reimagined the masked politico’s choreographed movements to fit my reality. My nearly-touching, clinched fists represent my and my community’s anger, resilience, and defiance. My hands quivered as I slowly opened my fists to reveal my empty and objectless hands, instead of flat, still palms as Martirano’s masked politico had. My flailing arms and sudden drop reflects my confusion, pain, and a fate that governmental and societal choices have indefensibly dealt to Black people. My final gesture represents the helping hand, so to speak, of people and communities who have recently joined the fight to show that Black lives matter.

My appearance was also central to my vision. My masked face reflects the clear reality—physical appearance does not change structural and institutionalized violence against Black people. I wore white for two of its many implications and meanings: it is seen as a color that reflects purity, and historically this color was worn by institutionalized mentally ill patients. Black people face mental and emotional instability due to the generational and personal trauma we face by simply being. To justify the continued assault and oppression of Black people, we have been characterized as everything but pure. I appropriated this consideration of white to change the narrative: I am pure in my Black skin.

My intent was to maintain a quality of chaos—a depiction of our current reality— in both the visual and the audio. The distorted sounds, ranging in pitch, volume, and frequency, reflect the still-present message of Martirano’s L’s GA. The layered audio clips maintain the garbled quality as heard in the original production. I recorded several voice recordings—spoken and sung—each at varying tempos, dynamics, and inflections. I altered these recordings by lowering and raising the pitch, using special audio effects, and decreasing and increasing the volume. These audio clips gradually become clearer and, for the last few seconds, my repeated message, from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, is audible: “We are engaged in a great war, testing whether that nation or any other nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure.”

I filmed scenes and took photographs during my travels in Berlin, Germany my new home. Using the now-natural backdrop of Berlin—the coarse and abundant graffiti—I created my response and my protest. Additionally, I repurposed a March 1964 Malcolm X interview, given four years before the birth of L’s GA and shy one year before his assassination. His words convey a relevant message, fifty-six years later, “They haven’t even pulled the knife out much less heal the wound. They won’t even admit that the knife is there.” If any indication is needed to understand Malcolm X’s statement, the 2020 U.S. presidential election serves as a current model to prove that this metaphorical knife is still buried deep within this wounded nation. My brief update to Martirano’s multimedia depiction reaffirms his opinion—Lincoln’s address did not lead to a new birth of freedom, but rather an aborted attempt as we continue to turn further and further away from democracy and the fulfillment of this presidential promise.

I struggle to find a balance between Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address and our ever-present reality. Black Lives Matter, a movement that began in 2013, is needed to protest that “Black lives matter”—it is a simple message, but, even still, many struggle to agree with and accept this. I question, how much of “me” was included in his speech? Lincoln recited his words at a time when the United States was at war with its very existence, at a time when the humanity of Africans and their American-born descendants was finally being considered by white America. In 2020, we meet again, at the same junction. Lincoln’s speech recognized a fact he believed the United States was prepared to engage with, but he was unwilling to confront the past that generated the need for this rebirth. He advanced in his views on race, but he could not imagine the vocabulary and the emotions of Black Americans who faced unthinkable suffering at the hands of white America. To answer a question I posed earlier, America has yet to realize what equality for all means. After nearly two centuries, we are still in an ongoing war for the freedom of Black Americans to be, to do, and to live. I offer the following amended address:

Over twenty score ago, our captors brought forth, upon this country, our wounded bodies and traumatized minds, to establish a new nation, conceived in enslavement and violence, and dedicated to the proposition that all white men are created equal.

We continue to be engaged in a great civil war, testing whether the institutionalized processes of injustice and racism can be dismantled by that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated. We are met here on a great battlefield – in virtual and in physical – of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who gave their lives – John Lewis, Dorothy Height, Ida B. Wells, Muhammed Ali, Rosa Parks, Shirley Chisholm – and those who were murdered – Fred Hampton, Atatiana Jefferson, Martin Luther King, Jr., Marsha P. Johnson, Elijah McClain, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor, Sandra Bland, George Floyd, Malcolm X, Emmett Till and so on – so that this nation might change. It is altogether fitting and proper that we remember them. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The valiant men and women, living and dead, who fought here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will note and long remember, what we say here and what they did here.

Instead, it is for us, the living, to be consecrated here to the unfinished work for which they have so far fought and died and so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of breath that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall finally be about the people.

[1] Neely, Mark E. Jr. 1982. The Abraham Lincoln Encyclopedia. New York: Da Capo Press, Inc.

[2] Edna Medford, Ph.D. “Lincoln’s Evolving Racial Views.” Presentation, Rutherford B. Hayes Presidential Library, Fremont, OH, February 14, 2010.

Kameron Locke (he/him) is a classical singer, musicologist, and research-based artist who expresses facets of Blackness through music, performance, and study. A recent émigré to Berlin via London, he originally hails from Chicago and describes himself as an infiltrator in the classical music space, creating change from the inside.

Performing Unmet Hopes: Salvatore Martirano’s L’s GA

Thomas J. Kernan

Have we secured a new birth of freedom? Abraham Lincoln’s most recognizable piece of political oratory, the 1863 Gettysburg Address, opens with the president’s reminder that the still young nation was “conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Lincoln then swiftly turns from that historical claim to the reminder that the present experience was that of a nation divided in a civil war over whether this high ideal could come to pass. To conclude, he does not declare victory, in any sense—as it assuredly was yet elusive on many battlefields—but he does not even assert that the moral cause was secure. Rather, Lincoln charges his audience to join him in resolving that they would work to follow the efforts of those who had died, and thereby achieve what was truly required, a new birth of freedom.

Within the speech’s three paragraphs, Lincoln acknowledges that the enlightened cause of the new nation remained unfulfilled, yet possible through a rebirth. The national founding cause was not wrong, but it was not yet true either. Historian David W. Blight has argued that Lincoln and the period’s most recognized black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, embraced comparable language and ideas in their 1863 speeches.[1] In this brutal year of the war, when the possibility of battlefield victory and freedom for the enslaved appeared questionable at best, both men employed a similar rhetorical effort: the nation’s founding ideals were not wrong, but they had yet to be lived. The Civil War was only to be a success if it could serve as a rebirth, a moment when the high-minded thinking of four score and seven years ago met the lived experiences of “all men” who the “new nation” said were “created equal.”

Merrill D. Peterson, in his seminal study of Lincoln memory, orients this rebirth as part of a thread of Christian thinking in which Lincoln developed a yet unknown American civic religion.[2] To this end, Lincoln would make a similar gesture in the penultimate passage of his 1865 second inaugural address, the recognizable bit of poetry, “Fondly do we hope – fervently do we pray – that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgements of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether.’” While many Americans have long considered Robert E. Lee’s signing of a Confederate surrender, just soon after Lincoln’s second inauguration, to be the arrival of the national rebirth, Lincoln was struck down by an assassin’s bullet before he could continue his assessment of the nation’s status.

Did we make it? Was every drop of blood repaid? Was God’s judgement favorable? Even if so, did the “new birth of freedom” take the form of a healthy and robust baby who was to be nurtured into a nation-state with which her parents would be proud? Or, as Lincoln had warned, were the ultimate sacrifices of slave and soldier in vain? In the hands of twentieth-century, Illinois-based composer Salvatore Martirano and the poet/performer Michael Holloway, who joined him to premiere L’s GA in 1968, the answer was “Have a new birth – blah, blah, blah, birth – blah, blah, blah – birth, blah, blah, blah – of freedom – wap, smack, smich, woop.”

Martirano’s composition was preceded by many other musical settings of the Gettysburg Address. As early as 1865, the Cuban composer Narciso Teller Y Arcos referenced Lincoln’s speech in preparing an international funerary ode that was first printed in Paris. In the midst of the Great Depression, Jacob Weinberg set a Yiddish translation of the speech to rebut challenges raised about the patriotism of Jewish-American immigrants. Certainly, the most recognized and performed setting of a portion of the address remains Aaron Copland’s A Lincoln Portrait (1942), which culminates not with “blah, blah, blah” but with orchestra and narrator together reaching a triumphant climax.

Martirano’s multimedia masterstroke features the choreographed role described in the score as “a gas-masked politico,” three movie projectors conveying filmic images prepared by Ronald Nameth, two-channel tape accompaniment, and Lincoln’s words adapted by the poet Holloway in a manner that they are both present but obscured throughout. The composition’s title, L’s GA, conveys that Lincoln’s charge on the Pennsylvania battlefield remains seemingly always with us, yet miles away. This title is, of course, an abbreviation of “Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address,” but Martirano never overtly asserts the full title of the speech within his composition—not in the text nor even in an imaginative program note that he prepared for a 1969 performance at the University of Connecticut. In twenty-first-century academic parlance, one might describe Martirano’s title as a deliberate erasure, but it is not. Martirano did not merely remove or eclipse some of Lincoln’s speech; he offered an update on the speech, a response to the late president. If Lincoln had provided a task that the citizens were to accomplish, then Martirano was checking in on our progress and reporting back that any “new birth of freedom” had yet to bring into existence a vibrant new being.

Martirano composed L’s GA during the Vietnam War and the height of the African American Civil Rights Movement. In that moment not only was Lincoln’s goal unmet, but these external and internal wars once again obscured any hope of having the text, majestic as it remained, ring true. The film content, frequently loud passages of tape accompaniment, and the actor’s timed gestures in the performance space all underscore the disorientation of wartime. But most striking for most who witness L’s GA is the way in which it subverts expectations of similar performed art objects: the singer, actor, or poet who portrays the “politico” delivers Lincoln’s words while wearing a gas mask. The audience does not see the individual’s face; all facial expressivity is obliterated. Not only are the address’ ideals lost in the fog of war provided by the film and tape accompaniment but the mask, the uniform, and the madly fascistic gestures prevent any possibility that the performer is offering Lincoln’s wise words as a statement of something fully realized.

Martirano goes still further to dehumanize these words from the actor by, at one point, asking him to consume helium—a step that performers can achieve with real-time sound manipulation in contemporary performances—so that his voice ascends to a significantly higher pitch and is even more unexpected. What follows is empty, absurdly hollow, profoundly clichéd beauty: time-lapse film of flowers blooming, accompanied by an egregiously over-the-top excerpt from an opera by Camille Saint-Saëns.

In crafting a musical setting of the Gettysburg Address, Martirano did as all composers attempt: he brought it into his time and place. For Martirano, in 1968, Lincoln’s hopes were, well “blah, blah, blah.” In conceptualizing how to portray the Gettysburg Address, Martirano contributed to the Lincoln musical memorial repertoire a composition that remains an enduring framework for performers seeking to challenge the notion that the nation met the hopes that Lincoln deposited on the battlefield of his day.

[1] David W. Blight, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2018), 414–15.

[2] Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 360–61.

Thomas J. Kernan is an associate professor of music history and head of the honors bachelor of musical arts program at Roosevelt University’s Chicago College of Performing Arts. He regularly publishes research on the musical memorialization of Abraham Lincoln, from the president’s death in 1865 to the present, a topic for which his doctoral dissertation, “Sounding the Mystic Chords of Memory,” earned the 2016 Hay-Nicolay Prize from the Abraham Lincoln Institute and Abraham Lincoln Association.

You Don’t Remember That, Do You?

by William Brooks

It was 1967. You don’t remember that, do you? Probably you weren’t even around then. But I was. And it is one of my memories; what I remember; part of our American Biography; part of what made us all—even you, who might not have been born—what we are.

Young men were being drafted and dying in the jungle. Young black men were dying more often. Resistance was growing. I was white, and I was safe: I had a deferment. I could watch while SDS and Black Muslims contended with each other as well as with the government. It was very confusing.

There was a concert, and Sal Martirano presented L’s GA for the first time: a composition for gas-masked politico, with helium bomb, assisted by a nurse. Lincoln’s iconic words struggled to be heard through the mask. The voice struggled to be a voice, bombed as it was by helium. American words of inspiration were turned into fascist chanting, mindless calisthenics, totalitarian mockery. And all drowned out by sound and image: love duets at 110 dB; war games played on naked bodies; thunder, drums, and death.


Masks are everywhere: masks for defense against illness, masks for defense against tear gas, masks to conceal identities. Everyone can be—everyone is compelled to be—a gas-masked politico.

Are you choosing your mask? Choosing to be safe, to be separate, to be secure? That mask enables you to breathe without fear, to venture outside, to care for yourself and others.

Or has the mask been forced upon you? To smother you, silence you, suppress your very being? That mask cares nothing for you or for others.

With some masks, words struggle to be heard: I can’t breathe. Be safe. Black lives matter. With other masks, words are amplified: Be free. Make America great. All lives matter. Nothing matters. 

Lives are taken, voices suppressed: by gas, by knees, by gunshots, by chokeholds. Inspiration is replaced: by fascist tweets, lies, distortions, fakery, greed, racism, abuse, indifference.

Fifty-three years later, so much has changed. Or has it?