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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Traditional

There is such beauty to be found in the traditions that connect us to other times and places, and as people who worship in a traditional setting, there can be an energy which comes from being rooted in the past – rooted in sound theology, and in liturgy and music that soars and take us along to a more glorious understanding of God. When done well, we can be nourished by the traditions our forebears created to worship God within the framework of a liturgy which speaks for a community rather than individuals.

When we care enough, we aspire to live into those traditions, whether that means decorating for Christmas or saying “The Lord’s Prayer.” The acolytes learn to carry the cross and torches with care and dignity.  Lay readers demonstrate that they’ve rehearsed their readings at home, often bringing a real sense of drama and wonder to the lessons.  And hearing and singing the great hymns and anthems of the Anglican tradition, as well as music from other traditions, will be something that stays with children throughout their lives. I’ve seen proof of that in talking to former Choristers.  Junk food can be fun, and temporarily tasty, but nourishment comes from real food, and if you’ve read anything about nutrition lately, you know that traditional grains and ways of cooking are back!

I subscribe to a listserv for choral directors on which there is periodic chatter around the appropriate use of spirituals in “white” churches. I used to follow the talk with some bemusement as I wondered how people could still worry about this in 21st century America, but recent events and political discourse have changed bemusement to concern. In one instance, a minister had emailed his musician (you see the problem already – email is never the way to discuss a problem) to say that he was disturbed by the published anthem schedule, which included a spiritual.  The minister didn’t believe a “white” church choir could sing African-American music in an authentic way, and seemed to be skeptical of singing in African-American dialect – Ain’a dat good news, for example.

There is a tradition to uphold, however, in the dialect which grew out of slavery. We honor something good that came out of the darkest part of American history, when we sing in dialect, which, by the way, is an integral part of the music, servings the music’s rhythms so beautifully. I can’t imagine wanting to iron out the dialect of spirituals to make it more acceptable to modern ears. I believe singing spirituals in dialect provides a sense of the historical and cultural context from which these songs spring, and a profound respect for the suffering and inequalities they represent.

And yet, I too have experienced the quick judgements of singers and congregations who suggest that largely white choirs shouldn’t sing music from the African-American tradition. I find that embarrassing. Not to be “white” (well, I’m actually kind of beige), but to think that somehow people believe that this music doesn’t belong to us.  In that case I would have to question whether or not a “black” church should ever sing Handel or Mozart. Spirituals and Gospel music are good. Bach and Tallis are good.  And all good things belong to everybody. We won’t excel at every tradition, but there is joy in trying.

The printed words of Ain’t got time to die , sung this Sunday at St. John’s, will embarrass some folks, but in singing them we are honoring a tradition. It is a tradition of strength and resilience, of indomitable spirit and creativity. We sing and hear the words of African-American spirituals, and we are more deeply connected to another time and place, as we are when we sing the hymns of Martin Luther, the motets of Palestrina, the folk tunes of the Shakers and the resistance songs of South Africans.

Peace,
Sonya