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What Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ means to me

Charmin Smith, head coach, Cal women's basketball team | January 23, 2020

Happy Birthday to ya!
Happy Birthday to ya!
Happy Birthday!

Stevie Wonder's "Happy Birthday" poster.The Stevie Wonder version of “Happy Birthday” is very popular in the Black community. We’ll appease people and sing the traditional version all the way through, then immediately bust out in the more enthusiastic rendition Stevie released in 1980.

For a long time, I thought every black person knew the meaning behind the song. It wasn’t until I asked a group of our student-athletes here at Cal (who were more “woke” than most) if they knew who the song was intended for, that I understood the disconnect. Generations just copying tradition without knowing the origin.

Growing up, my mom made sure I knew. My brother and I knew about Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, even. That’s just how it was in our household. And by the time I was in first grade, I was used to a very meaningful tradition in my family.

At this point in time, MLK Day was not yet recognized as a national holiday. But in the Smith household, there were always two constants on Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday: no one went to school or work, and the record player had Stevie Wonder’s “Hotter Than July” album blaring, with me going over to replay “Happy Birthday” again and again.

My mom would pick me up and dance with me in her arms.

This particular year, as we were twirling around singing the song, I asked, “Where is Martin Luther King now, Mother?”

“He was assassinated.”

I didn’t know what that meant, so I asked for more of an explanation. My mom explained, “they killed him.” When I asked who “they” were, she told me, “White people killed him because they didn’t like what he was trying to do for black people and for the country.”

I just couldn’t stop crying. It is probably one of the saddest moments in my life. And the next day, I went to school filled with hate. I hated every white person I saw. I had so much rage and anger.

Until recess when it was time to play with Jody and Karen.

Perhaps at a young age I realized quickly that Jody and Karen had nothing to do with the assassination of MLK. Or perhaps being one of very few black people at the time in the Ladue school district in St. Louis, I just wanted friends more than I wanted to hate. I’m really not sure how I was able to resolve my feelings, but I was always able to adjust and adapt and make my way among all people, despite race or any other differences.

Whenever I hear people singing Stevie’s version of “Happy Birthday,” I’m reminded of that day and those tears. And I will never understand why racial equality is so difficult for our nation. I will never understand why so many hold on to hate toward people they don’t even know and have never tried to understand.

My time as a collegiate coach has helped me see that not all people of color find it easy to navigate through predominately white institutions, places of work, or even social settings. We say our nation is all about inclusion and acceptance, but if we are honest with ourselves, we must face that fact that it took until 1986 for MLK Day to become a national holiday and that we still have a long way to go to become the nation he wanted us to be.

I salute you, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

You changed lives. You tried to change a nation and a world. I often ask myself, what can I do to impact lives, to encourage change?

There have been moments and opportunities. From raising money for Hurricane Katrina victims while I was an assistant at Stanford, to marching in protests surrounding the murder of Michael Brown and other young black men in Berkeley, I have tried to find my way. I believe myself to be someone who stands for equality – racial, gender and social. I believe in the Black Lives Matter movement and hold my Black Lives Matter wristband every game during the playing of the national anthem.

But now, I have the largest platform I’ve ever had to impact lives. As one of a small number of black female head coaches in women’s college basketball, I feel honored to serve as a role model for my student-athletes of all races. They know me to be a person who is confident and comfortable as my authentic self. They know me to be someone who respects all and someone who appreciates and embraces diversity. Inclusion is demanded in my program, not just tolerated.

And the young women who enter my program will be encouraged to walk through life owning their space, whether they are the only female in a room, the only person of color in the room, or the only LGBTQ+ person in the room. I hope they learn what was instilled in me from a very young age: that they belong any place they want to be and this world was meant for them exactly the way they are.

Dr. King and my mother taught me that. And for that reason, any student-athlete who enters my program will know who Stevie Wonder wrote “Happy Birthday” for. They will know this is a holiday people had to fight for and that there’s work still to be done.

Stevie’s lyrics are important to me, and I’m not referring to the chorus:

I just never understood
How a man who died for good
Could not have a day that would
Be set aside for his recognition
Because it should never be
Just because some cannot see
The dream as clear as he
That they should make it become an illusion…

As we honor his life, I want everyone to know that everything MLK fought for, you have a right to claim.

Be the best version of yourself unapologetically, and accept and include others as they are. It’s our differences that make life so interesting.

And to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:

Happy Birthday to ya!
Happy Birthday to ya!
Happy Birthday!

 

Cross-posted from the Cal Athletics website

 

Comments to “What Stevie Wonder’s ‘Happy Birthday’ means to me

  1. From Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in the 19th century through Darth Vader in the ’80s (control your fear; release your anger; only your hatred can destroy me), the projection of resentment on to an other, to make them a pariah or scapegoat, has been given a lot of media attention without very much progress toward resolution. One step forward and two steps back.

    I had experiences similar to yours in elementary school, Coach Smith. I lost friends over prejudices and ignorance and misunderstandings. Taking sides and forming up teams took a toll.

    All the more reason why we should use every opportunity to hold up examples of love (tough love) and progress like MLK. Thanks for your posting!

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