The Dark Past

This is the weekend to revisit, with greater understanding and appreciation, one of our country’s finest – and darkest – moments. The Civil Rights movement shaped most of the mid-20th century and has more recently expanded in scope to include differences of sexuality, physical abilities and ethnicities. Standing up to injustice by sitting down at lunch counters…naming systemic inequalities by making those on the winning side of the imbalances uncomfortable…choosing love over hate…when does the work of seeing what is wrong in order to make it right end?

In recognition of the powerful work of reconciliation effected by Dr. Martin Luther King, that great hymn Lift Every Voice and Sing will undoubtedly be sung by millions of voices around the country this weekend.  It was first performed in 1900 as a poem read during a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in a program at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Florida, an event at which Booker T. Washington was the honored guest that day.  Imagine the power of these words on the ears and hearts of people just 35 years from slavery.

Lift every voice and sing, ‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,  Bitter the chast’ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat, Have not our weary feet c
ome to the place for which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past, Til now we stand at last Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
 
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light, Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand,
True to our God, True to our native land.

There are A LOT of recordings of this song on YouTube, and I spent more time than I should to find just the right one.  I didn’t want a soloist, or something glossy and over-produced. I didn’t want it to be sung by a highly skilled Gospel choir or a staid, perfectly in-tune, yet soulless, choir.  This is a hymn for all people.  True story – I memorized this hymn and we sang it as my husband and I walked down the aisle at the end of our wedding in 1999. A hymn for all people, and all occasions!

There is one line that I ponder each time I play this hymn though, the final line True to our native land.  What is our native land?  Were African-Americans in 1900 thinking about some part of Africa?  About the United States, where everyone in that first audience was mostly likely born?  Or could we claim this song for everyone by thinking about our native land as that heavenly land where we are loved regardless of skin color or political beliefs or “differences” of any kind?  Perhaps a native land where reconciliation is not just a goal, but already complete.

I am reading a biography of Harriet Tubman these days. Her story refuses to allow us to see slavery as anything other than the cruelest institution, one that was damaging in different ways to people of every skin color. If an audience just 35 years away from that dark past can sing about facing a rising sun and marching until victory is won, then we are obligated today to continue rising, continue marching, continue standing, true to what is right, because the past has followed us and demands to be examined.

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MLK/We the People

MLK

Sleep, sleep tonight, and may your dreams be realized…

There is plenty of evidence pointing to all the ways that the human body uses sleep as a time for healing and making needed adjustments in our brains and bodies. Until we evolve past a need to sleep it remains a necessary part of life, and during our sleep we dream. And when we dream we process ideas that we might have only vaguely been aware of during our wakefulness.

This coming Monday, when our country formally remembers the work of Martin Luther King, the word “dream” takes on even more significance.  His was a dream that came from being fully awake in a segregated and gaze-averting world, but the song MLK, performed by the group U2, expresses a hope that King’s dream will be realized during his “sleep” (as one euphemism for death goes). Healing, along with dreaming, happens while we sleep, and healing seems more integral than ever to realizing King’s dream.

If the thundercloud passes rain, so let it rain down on him, the U2 song continues. Thunderclouds seem ominous, charged with electricity and brooding power. The rains and winds they bring can be dramatic, even frighteningly violent – but ultimately the air is clearer, the dead branches are blown out of the trees, and the rains bring new life. Dreams and thunderclouds…those both feel like potent symbols of this country’s continuing struggles with racial understanding.

We the people

I had the good fortune of visiting the then new memorial dedicated to Martin Luther King on a beautiful summer evening several years ago. It was crowded, but deep thoughts were clearly moving behind reverent faces and faraway looks. It was my privilege to be there with my mother-in-law, an African-American woman who is King’s exact contemporary, and I only wished that her ninety-nine year old mother could have joined us as well.  I had seen pictures and read about the memorial, knew about the controversies that surrounded its creation, and wondered if it could possibly hope to represent the magnitude of what King gave to this country, all the while thinking that as a work of art it was hardly breaking any new ground aesthetically, and in fact it looked rather Stalinesque to me in the photos I had seen.

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How good to be surprised. The quotes are strong and (sadly) as appropriate to our own time as four or five decades ago.  I knew there had been criticism by Maya Angelou, among others, of the expression on King’s face, but we studied it for a long time and what we saw was a man who didn’t like what he was seeing, gazing, as he is, at the conflicted slave-owner Thomas Jefferson across the Tidal Basin. Or perhaps it’s an expression of discomfort, knowing he was being called to do dangerous work that required his reluctant response, found in words of the prophet Isaiah…here am I, send me.

Arms crossed, expression stern, King seems poised to do something about the inequities around him. We slowly read each of the quotes carved into the monument’s stones and mourned the lack of such soaring rhetoric in our own time.

On the way out a park ranger heard our conversation and stopped to ask what we thought of the memorial, and we asked him in turn what his impressions were. He told us that when he had first seen the memorial, weeks before it opened, he wasn’t very impressed. As soon as it opened to the public he realized that the memorial had been missing something. People.  People walking and thinking and quietly conversing, teaching their children and asking their elders – that’s what made the memorial a success in his opinion.

From the mountain of despair, a stone of hope, so the memorial is called.  We the people, so begins the U.S. Constitution. The people, each of us one stone of hope. Each of us called to be a dreamer.

Peace,

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This blog represents my attempt to put thoughts together on various things that seem to connect – in my mind anyway. More often than not new ideas first involve reaching back to what was and I can only hope that the prehistoric San cave painting at the top of this page inspires all kinds of connections between old and new.

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