Tuesday, December 31, 2013

"Come By Here"

The “Gullah” people are Africans brought to the United States and who were placed on the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia and South Carolina.  The name most probably derives from the culture found in the area of West Africa, where they originally lived:  “Angola” (part of present-day Nigeria).  Because the Gullah were far more numerous than their enslavers, they reinstated themselves into a distinctive culture, with a continuity of their birth-cultures and with a Creole language also called “Gullah”.  Even though some of the Gullah no longer speak the language fluently, there are still many in the Sea Islands who do.  Their songs, proverbs and stories are widely studied.

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, 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?


  1. Thank you Joseph for these stirring thoughts. It made me think about it relation to the Lakota context I find myself in. I do not know enough about Lakota songs if they appeal to Grandfather Spirit to hear them, or enough about individual practices to know how many pray in "hush harbors" (I love hits new image). What I hear is "lament" and we cannot bear to hear it if we have not worked with our own pain. U.S history has not dealt enough with the pain of slavery and what it did to its native peoples. Liberation, for me, is not about freedom from pain, but engaging it, acknowledging it, becoming sensitized to it- so, as far as possible- we avert trying to repeat it. Thank you for this New Year's post-we need voices such as yours to keep us sharpened and conscious.

  2. It is important that you resurrected and presented the real meaning of this song. It has been lost in translation (literally and figuratively) over the years: It's become a metaphor for a last resort to "just get along." It's used too often to sarcastically describe political and generally forced acquiescence for the sake of appearances. Thanks for reminding us of how dearly our ancestors and loved ones paid to moan those words into action and faith and vice versa. This piece will prick my conscience the next time I'm tempted to attach the sacred words of this song/prayer so loosely to some situation where a half-hearted consensus to political or social gripping is being sought.

    You’ve reminded me of how we managed to perform the same distancing from the pain and import of Kumbaya as we have to Rodney King’s visceral plea in 1992 (after being beat to within hair’s breathe of his life): “People, I just want to say, can we all get along? Can we get along?” It’s a joke now. It’s what we say sarcastically when there is infighting of any kind among us. But a quick click on Youtube to witness what he endured in June of 1992 and the subsequent grace that raised him to utter those words, and we remember they are not light in their meaning. They are born of great pain, perseverance, and until he died, a fierce commitment to love despite what had been exacted upon him. Now there’s a Kumbaya moment!

    Thank you for this!

  3. Thank you so much for posting this. It is so great to learn the truth!

  4. I spent some time today reading your posts. They are amazing to say the least. I am blessed to be able to see through the eyes of the ancestors.