The Joy of Protest
The Radical Love of Bev Grant
The first time I saw Bev Grant, she was playing guitar and singing an Ida Cox song on the streets of Nyack, New York. With an inviting illustrious grin, she sang out, “Wild women don’t worry….Wild women don’t have the blues.”
The glimmer in Bev’s eye was so earnest and her delivery so full, it gave me hope as an artist that we could indeed reach one another on an intrinsic level with gusto.
We ended up singing in similar circles, so I’ve had the pleasure of befriending her and getting to hear her sing on many occasions. What became clear to me is that Bev is someone who truly gives a damn, without rancor. This is significant because Bev is a die-hard activist through and through. Her songs look injustice in the eye with the assurance that the strength of our collective humanity is powerful enough to overcome anything, without the abasement of hatred.
Bev grew up in Oregon, as one of three sisters, who all sang and played together. I am not certain, but suspect, her nature and the bond she had early on instilled a light-hearted joy that allows her to traverse the seas she’s navigated since then with a keen eye and a song on her lips.
After moving to New York in the sixties, and taking a secretarial job, during an abusive relationship, Bev found herself drawn into a feminist consciousness-raising collective that became known as the New York Radical Women. “The women’s movement was life-changing for me, I started to discover who I was-that I was worthy,” Bev later told Naomi Fry of the New Yorker magazine.
Bev left the relationship and although she describes it as, “happenstance,” destiny had her pick up a Pentax 35mm camera and begin to take pictures at the many demonstrations and events she participated in.
In 1968, she documented an Atlantic City protest of the Miss America Pageant. “ Critically, these pictures — which are among the earliest depictions of feminist (a movement then identified as ‘women’s liberation’) action in the streets — depict joy as much as they do profound anger. Women, who are fighting against their societal degradation and dismissal as sex objects, appear both fierce and delighted; fueled by optimism, they sing, laugh and revel in their communion and public misbehavior,” David Rothman of CBS-This Morning said.
Back in New York, Bev immersed herself in the furtive climate of change, snapping away, capturing the diverse yearning for dignity in the face of racial, cultural and sexual discrimination. In her own words, Bev said she was, “exposed to different political struggles that were happening in the city and in the world, and it drew me into understanding my own oppression.” Understanding the plight of women everywhere, “helped me have empathy toward the things that were going on in the black community, and in the Puerto-Rican community. I understood the struggles of people different than myself.”
Her pictures capture the comradery that existed between protesters and demonstrators. History has shown time and again that when we rally against something only in anger and hatred, we actually strengthen that which we are opposing. Bev’s photographs uphold the freedom and human dignity that the demonstrations were aiming to achieve.
Alison Gingeras, who recently used many of Bev’s photographs in an exhibit at a project space called Osmos in the East Village noted:
“What struck me so profoundly was the fact that Grant prefigured this whole notion of intersectionality.” Grant’s images, Gingeras said, “tell the story of this utopic moment before things got very divisive and polarized. And the echoes of the struggles she documented are still being heard right now. A memorable humanism binds Grant’s images. Her subjects are coeval with, rather than subsumed by, their political action.”
In 1972, Bev switched gears from being a photographer to being a musician. She formed a group with five women and five men called, “The Human Condition.”
“We were totally multicultural. We sang in about five languages using the styles of those places,” Bev said. The Human condition became one of the first World Music groups before they disbanded in 1991. Bev however, never stopped singing and doing her best to improve the lives of those around her.
In 1997, she became the founder and director of the Brooklyn’s Women Chorus. Bev insisted that no one had to audition to get in because, “Women come who think they can’t sing, and then they find their voice and everyone cheers.”
As an example of the service this chorus provides, one member, who left an abusive socially restrictive marriage, has found her strength in the company of this community. Bev said when she arrived, “She couldn’t speak she was so tight but she loved the singing. She got better and better and she came religiously. She needed it. It showed me the power of song. She got to the point where she could carry a solo. That’s the best part of the whole chorus, when you see that development.”
What is significant to me is that I thought I had known Bev for years but, in researching her life, I realize I have only known the tip of the iceberg. Her accolades are not the kind that inspire jealousy but jaw-dropping admiration.
For instance, for over 25 years, Bev has been the cultural director of the United Association of Labor Education North East Summer School. Using her experience and knowledge gained, she developed a show that she has presented to unions and labor studies programs across the country.
Again, in her own words:
“WE WERE THERE!” is a multi-media women’s labor history project featuring voices, songs and projected images depicting our sisters’ struggles from abolitionist Sojourner Truth, fighting for women’s rights to Dolores Huerta fighting on behalf of the farmworkers of today.”
Recently in Costa Rica, Bev presented a global version of this show for the United Trade Unions Confederation’s 3 rdWomen’s conference, a gathering of women from around the world. The song she wrote for the show, also called, “We Were There,” received the 2017 Jay Gorney award.
We Were There: https://youtu.be/Cjnyk06MZRY
Bev was bestowed the 2017 Joe Hill award from the Labor Heritage foundation. Luminaries such as Pete Seeger, Hazel Dickens and Utah Phillips have previously been honored with this same award.
Through all the notoriety the revival of her photography has ushered in, Bev remains humble and focused on her work moving forward. Although actively incensed at the, “ power structure hell-bent on destroying the progress we made in terms of social justice, women’s rights and anti-racism,” Bev remains joyful, and is a true light in each community that she moves in.
This lyric from her song, “I Remember Love,” for me, is at the center of Bev Grant’s success as an artist and an activist:
“ I don’t remember the pain so much anymore
Confusion’s not clouding my brain like it did before
My bed is empty at night but my days are full and bright…and I remember love……I remember love.”
Originally published at http://www.streamoflightblog.com on April 30, 2019.