One of the traditional methods of worship was for them to gather in non-populated forest areas where they could perform prayers to their ancestors; educate one another in the rituals of their belief system; and in some places maintain the integrity of their worship, in spite of the opposition of many of the Christian missionaries and slaveholders who otherwise attempted domination of their lives. In fact, such gathering spaces appear all over the south – and all over the transatlantic Africana sites. (Albert J. Raboteau writes about this phenomenon in Slave Religion) One of the great Spirituals goes so far as to say, “If you want to find Jesus/ Go in the Wilderness.” This was a place where one encountered God and learned a message that would be of great help to one’s fellow sufferers. (Zora Neale Hurston discusses this journey into the wilderness in her essay, “Conversions and Visions”) The places where they gathered were clearings shaped in the forests and which were called “hush harbors” or “brush harbors.” The “hush harbor” was so- named when the practitioners would turn iron pots upside down on the earth, believing that the pots would focus their voices into the ground where, they believed, and their ancestors resided. They were convinced that such a method of communication was kept secret – therefore they were able to pray in “hushed” tones.
From the Sea Island people we have one of the most important of the Spirituals, a song that deserves much more respect than has been given it since it suffered serious collateral damage from the folk music revival of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. Today, “Kumbaya” is used by political commentators, white and (unfortunately) black, as a metaphor for mindless, feel-good naïveté, an example of superficial hope in a bright tomorrow that will arrive with no blood, struggle or sacrifice. The plainest example is: “What do you expect us to do? Join hands and sing, “Kumbaya’”? Or, “Is this supposed to be a ‘Kumbaya’ moment, where we all stand around and smile at each other?”
As Bernice Johnson Reagon says in “The Songs Are Free” [PBS Video with Bill Moyers], "if people don’t know the context for a song, they lose its meaning. And they don’t want to sing the song." I tremble when I try to imagine just how many campfires and youth revivals and demonstrations in the 1960’s had “Kumbaya” as part of their rituals. If we just keep the beat happy and fast, if we just smile and sway, if we just sing this over and over, we will all feel better. What has happened here is an example of the persistent deracializing of Black culture, when the greatest accomplishments of the people have been appropriated and utterly drained of prophetic and transformational transcendent power.
As an experiment, I have frequently asked students what they think about “Kumbaya.” Invariably, the response is, “I don’t like that song. It’s a kid’s song. It’s dumb.” And then I play it. Not the peppy, sugary folk revival version. Often, the version performed by Sweet Honey in the Rock. I read some appropriate verses from the Book of Exodus. I explain the cultural origins of the language. And then I play the song again.
It could be argued that the beginning of Black Theology can be traced to:
A long time passed, during which the king of Egypt died. The Israelites groaned under their bondage and cried out, and from their bondage their cry for help went up to God. God heard their moaning and God was mindful of his covenant with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. God saw the Israelites, and God knew…. [Or, “God took note.”] Exodus 2: 23-25.
Theology is the story of God’s intervention in human history. Black Theology begins with trans-located Africans exploding with the insight that if God could “deliver Daniel from the lions’ den, then why not every man?” Finding the initial biblical cry of oppressed slaves and knowing that the groaning of the lately oppressed and abandoned would be heard, the spirit-possessed singing believers – with the sound of their voices – became the Israelites anew. The Exodus story describes the action. The song, Kumbaya”, becomes the action. The song is the prayer itself. It possesses the power to make the desire a reality (“grace”).
Come by here, O Lord (Kum ba yah, my Lord)
Come by here. (Kum ba yah.)
Come by here, O Lord,
Come by here.
Oh, Lord, come by here
Someone needs you Lord…
Someone’s praying Lord….
Someone’s singing Lord….etc.
When we see how the singers forged the connection of the song to the moaning of the Israelites, it actually operates as a strong demand of the people in bondage to gain the notice of the liberating God and force him to intervene in their lives as He once did for the Israelites in Pharaoh’s Egypt. Many of the old Spirituals have this sentiment. The notion of calling God down from the sky is present in all sorts of Afro-new-world religions, especially those where spirit possession is a common occurrence. The slow, repetitive rhythm and the simple chanting of the lyrics would be useful for inducing a trance, whereby those engaged in the ritual of the hush harbor could alter their consciousness and feel the spirit of the divine enter into them and give them the strength to endure; or transcend, or overcome.
If only people would stand in front of Capitol buildings and City Halls and shout for the liberating power of the divine to fill the earth and the sky to rid the oppressed of the plagues that destroy them and the earth upon which they walk. If only we knew. Those who have no knowledge of the root of such a spiritual call embarrass themselves when they misuse the gifts of the old ones to dismiss those who still search for hope. But those of us who allow such misjudgments to replace what the old ones knew are also at peril.
The need to have sharp, conscious minds that can resist or challenge the bombardment of the media today is not merely an intellectual determinant. If we do not know what we are being fed, our minds and spirits will shrink from cultural deprivation and malnourishment. If our minds are not actively engaged in seeking the “true truth,” will we have the strength to call forth our own liberation?