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?

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Tree Planted by the Water

A Chant for Nelson Mandela (1918 – 2013)
"We saw in him what we seek in ourselves." – Jacob Zuma, President of South Africa

It was decided:
In order to protect themselves
they took him
                             walled him in
from the shouts of the prisoners playing
in the field
                       from the smell of his daughters’
hair    from the squinting eyes of the boys learning
at his books
                         They took him and found
themselves bound by his gaze
                                                         and he
did not move   planted by the water
can bring the sky inside you
the world will circle you

When they saw that even sitting on the floor
was the tallest tree on the island
                                                                 They became afraid
of his shadow   the reach of his breath
                                                                   cracked the stones
when he walked through the walls
the children filled the air like
                                                   dawn-shocked summer birds

one day of ice and snow has stopped this city
so that
                We could hear the drum

The old man
has now released us
the laugh that his heart held
in fear  makes the circle


-- Luke    5 December 2013

Friday, November 22, 2013

Wade in the Water, Children

During an intensely engaging November weekend, I attended and spoke at the funeral of one of my oldest friends. We began grade school together, in 1950, at St. Augustine’s Mission for Colored Catholics, in East St. Louis. Jacquelyn Stanback Mosley was the smartest person I knew. After she graduated from high school, she married and began her career in higher education, leading to three degrees. For many years she was the medical affairs coordinator of the Grace Hill Neighborhood Health Center in St. Louis. With her husband (Marshall), she raised six children and embraced grand- and great-grandchildren.  Cancer made an aggressive intrusion into her life, a life extremely well-lived, with conscious grace and a dedication to service.

The next day, I was the invited preacher/presider at the Sunday liturgies at St. Alphonsus “Rock” Church in St. Louis. That had been Jacquelyn’s parish for twenty-five years. November has been named “Black Catholic History Month,” and I had agreed, weeks earlier to being one of the guests at the parish for that observance. For the next day, Veterans Day, I had also earlier agreed to celebrate a mass at the Loyola Academy, a Jesuit- sponsored middle school at the edge of St. Louis University. Sixty-two sixth, seventh and eighth grade African American and Hispanic male students assembled in the chapel for the weekly all-school mass, coordinated by the Jesuit chaplain and members of the eighth-grade class. One of the staff agreed to provide a song for the worship event.  And the senior religion teacher left the campus to bring a special visitor to the liturgy.

As I was in the chaplain’s office, vesting for the mass, in walked Sr. Antona Ebo, FSM, one of my great guides in righteous living, in truth telling, and in perseverance.  Sr. Antona established herself as a national justice worker when she defied the “no” of her religious community when she made known her intention to join Martin Luther King, Jr., and his associates on the now-famous March from Selma to Montgomery. The organizers of that march wanted religious leaders to be at the front of the march, in order to make clear and plain the prophetic foundations of the struggle for racial justice and human rights.  By countering the “no” of her community with a deeply rooted, “yes,” Sr. Antona announced herself as a leader, both in the Roman Catholic Church and in the nation. She became one of the founding members of the National Black Catholic Sisters’ Conference, in 1968. From numerous documentaries and scholarly interviews to honorary doctorates, Sr. Antona has shone her light, over and over. She walked into the office where I was vesting for mass; and something leapt inside my soul. She brought the unassailable authority of her life to the room. All she had to do was be present.

The scene: A room full of young men of color between the ages of twelve and fifteen, looking at two people who had pushed against the currents of racism in society and in the Catholic Church. It was a weekend crowded with the stimulus of history. My friend’s funeral, watching the brilliantly conceived film, “Twelve Years a Slave”; preaching at one of the most respected black Catholic sacred sites and then sharing the “Welcome Table” with Sr. Antona and dozens of the heralds of our future.  So it was altogether appropriate that the young staff member started playing “Wade in the Water” as our opening song. Even though I had some strong ideas of how to weave together my remarks about the occasion with the scripture readings of the day, the song said to me: “Just let us in, and we will give you what you need to say.” The ancestors always arrive on time.

So I told stories, especially about some of the journeying Sr. Antona and I had made, carrying hope with  us the whole time – the hope that the generation seated before us would be preparing themselves to shape their (and our) futures. As is usual when I use “Wade in the Water” as an outline for a talk, I broke the phrase into its components, first acting out the different ways one could confront water. Not “tread” in the water; not “drown” in the water; not “paddle” in the water; but “wade” in it. Push against nature’s resistance, not losing your cool, and looking good as you make your progress. Pausing at various references in scripture for getting into the water. The Exodus story and then the crossing of “the Band that Moses led,” over the Jordan, under the leadership of Joshua. The baptism of Jesus in that same Jordan river and the wonderful, odd and beautiful story of Jesus speaking with the man at the edge of the temple pool, called Bethesda (John 5:1 – 9). The belief was that any who were infirmed would be healed if they could be in the pool when the angel of the Lord descended and “stirred” (or “troubled”) the waters. The man Jesus encounters “had no one to put” him in the water. So Jesus said to him, “Stand up, take your mat and walk.”

The last aspect of the song that usually needs some attention is, “Wade in the Water, Children.” From  the construction of the song, it is clear that elders are exhorting children to push against their fear of  the unknown (or even the probable) and get into the water – the challenges, the obstacles, the dangers  of life – and step into the world that they cannot escape. Not all water will drown you. Not all the world  will overwhelm you. Not every danger will kill you. We made it over to the other shore; now let the  sound of our singing – our testimony, our witness – guide you through. Your history is an effective  guide.

But somebody has to teach our children how to hear the song, sing the song; and look good while wading into whatever comes rushing at them. [http://www.youtube.com/watch?av08GHz_9C4&list=PLbrjbumNvOk2Sd7GI25ZEMsaK858RVNQN]

The illustration: The musician had planned only the one song. The first singing could have used much improvement. It was obvious that the young participants did not “own” the song. Their efforts to find a key were admirable. Not necessarily effective; but admirable. The awkwardness of the performance was one of the sparks that gave me the push to explain the song. When it was repeated during the offering of the gifts – after the sermon – there was much more power in the singing. During the time for communion only the twelve or so students who were Catholic came forward to receive the Host. But all were encouraged to step forward for a blessing. The power of that procession nearly collapsed my heart. Such open, honest, sincere energy came toward me in those two lines; bringing me as close to tears as I have ever been at a mass. Sr. Antona joined me in the formal final blessing, thanking them for moving on up, a little higher. When we know the song, it can claim us. Once again, the chords of “Wade in the Water” enjoined us. Oh, the final performance of the song.  It was theirs. Full lung power; open throats; and the smiles on their faces made the song shine.

At the waterside, we blessed each other.

Monday, October 21, 2013

"A Long Way From Home"

When some brilliant, charismatic and eloquent young African Americans reflect on the state of our culture today, there are certain perceptions that wound my heart when I hear them.  For one significant example, The Reverend Otis Moss made the following comment in an interview conducted by the Center for American Progress:
There is a tradition in certain black churches of what I call the merging of our blues with the Gospel. In order for you to accurately sing gospel music, [you must know that] gospel music is built on the chords of the blues. And I think in the best of the black church tradition, the blues speaks to the existential, to what you’re dealing with. And the best of our tradition says, “This is the reality, this is the existential crisis, this is the problem. We serve a God who demands that we take our blues and sing the Gospel simultaneously.” [http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/religion/news/2013/07/19/70064/merging-the-blues-with-the-gospel-rev-otis-moss-iii-on-trayvon-martin-and-building-a-more-united-america/#.UgVJaTbQby0.email]

"God demands that we take our blues and sing the Gospel simultaneously.”  Somewhere or other, I thought to myself, the spiritual and cultural ancestors of Reverend Moss would be shaking their heads over that sincere insight of his. If there is anything we need to renew in our intellectual and theological tradition, it is the central fact that the enslaved Africans who began communicating with each other, “huddled spoon-fashioned” in the ships’ holds, became the exemplary post-modern existential actor when (in the words of Vincent Harding), they chose to survive. We know that part of the science of enslavement as it was refined for maximum control of the captured African children and adults entailed separating the captured from those who spoke the same language. Watching the late Bede Abram perform his introduction to Black Theology, telling us to hear the moaning of the chained Africans as an act of resistance and of restoration of the self, I learned to send my imagination into the moment.

A child begins crying. Far on the other side of the floating dungeon, a mother disconnected from her own offspring – or a father, lost to his children – begins humming a “sleep song” and the sound moves through the darkness. Another throat takes up the sound and soon, the women and men and children are a community-of-the-moment on more levels than contained by their common imprisonment. The captors hear these sounds and the disquiet of their souls intensifies. They cannot control the sound of the darkness; nor can they dismiss its power.  At the initiation of the groaning and murmuring, the sending of sound to comfort the disconnected, something marvelous, strange, at once old and new, entered into the world.  Bruno Chenu says it well: “In African music no one remains outside the singing.” (The Trouble I've Seen: the big book of Negro Spirituals, Chenu, 88)

Yes, the Blues speak to the existential condition. What Moss says has been asserted by Douglass, by Du Bois, by Albert Murray, by James Cone; and by performer after performer. Those who embody the blues tradition have possessed “a deep-seated sense of exclusion, disaffection, alienation, disillusionment, detachment, dissatisfaction, disorientation, and so on…” These singer/writer/artist/lovers are known as “Blues Heroes” – by Albert Murray (in The Hero and the Blues), and by many other critics.  But they are not first and foremost. The piled-up descriptors just mentioned fit those on the long walk to the ships; those who were locked in floating prisons; those who sang in order to use their singing to break through the walls within which they existed.

Post-modernist?  Absolutely.  Existential?  Before breakfast.  Africans became “black” through the process by which they were permanently dislocated from all sense of home; by which trauma was deliberately induced through rape, torture, and sensory deprivations. There was no past by which to be nourished, no future for which to plan. Only the hungry, scarring present to be endured.  And they moaned. They plotted. They performed non-verbal intricacies of communication that are still present in the culture today.  Black was not the condition of enslavement; it was the result of their acts of transcendence performed over and over. They started with the “blues condition” and used their cultural genius to reconstruct that which the enslavers were, with demonic determination, attempting to grind into submissive dust.   Chenu also says this:
Through all these musical manifestations, a communal identity was built up. The slaves did not have a wide choice of means to recognize each other in the diversity of their origins and grow into belonging to a community of destiny.  But song was one of them. It allowed the group to exist, and to last, on the basis of a common identity that was forged by the creativity of vocal expression. (95)

A community of destiny.  The community of the blues artists lasts about as long as the song lasts – or if the singer/performer is unusually lucky, until the next morning.  The Blues have an incredible power to “tell it like it is.” But these songs cannot tell anyone “what it ought to be.” It does not surprise me that many scholars will discuss the “crossover” phenomenon of blues music. At many concerts, these critics contend, the vast majority of the audiences are non-blacks. Black people seem less interested in the traditions of the blues. And this has been noticed and remarked upon since the middle of the 20th century.  But more and more, we have to admit, the same thing can – and must – be said about the audience for the body of Black Sacred Song known as “the Spirituals.”  Reverend Otis Moss implies this in our opening quotation. A blending of Blues and Gospel music is, in his reckoning, “the best of the black church tradition.” 

That indeed may be true.  At least the newer tradition. Very few travel very far back into the Black tradition to hear or sing the Spirituals. But fewer African Americans would consider themselves “churched” by any sociological measure.  This phenomenon has also been increasingly common since the middle of the last century.  From the days immediately following the end of the Civil War (whenever it did indeed end…) there were many who no longer wished to have anything to do with those old days, those old ways.  The young people who formed the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for only one example, had to be persuaded to sing the Spirituals.  They preferred to perform music that proved their emancipated status. But it was their performances of the Spirituals, not Mozart, which allowed them to raise the money to endow their university.

The Blues and much of what is known as Hip Hop music today seem to manifest the best of the existential mandate of blackness.  The Blues tell us “what is real.”  Most commercialized, corporately appropriated Hip Hop seems to tell us “what is fantasy” according to the best of classical Hollywood gangster or western films. But what will feed the ever-present hunger to form a community of destiny? Again, who will sing these songs?  We have millions for whom “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” could have been composed this morning. And we, all of us, know that in spite of the great symbolic exceptions, the rest of that song is also true: we are “a long ways from home.”  The old ones are asking, “What will you build, my child?”

Sunday, September 22, 2013

Tried Them on at the Gates of Hell

The 1963 birthday revisiting continues. Last week as I was surveying my bookshelves for a copy of slave stories from the Georgia Coast, I found another part of the birthday gift my family sent me while I was sitting in a house of studies in rural Minnesota. Inscribed:  “To Joseph Brown, N.S.J—for Birthday—September 5, 1963—from the Family.” It is in my mother’s handwriting. From the Family. My, what that simple line says to me, fifty years later.  The book was retrieved and sent to me by one of the dearest friends I could ever hope to have.  “Dear Joseph, Birthdays are appropriate occasions for reconciliation. Please accept this book from the “Society” as an apology for the ignorance of the former days . . . discovered this in the library. By returning it to you, I hope to express at least some understanding of its contents.  Happy Birthday.” [Editorial comments: “N.S.J”—“novice member of the Society of Jesus.” “Society”—internal shorthand for “the Society of Jesus”]

The book? Strength to Love, a collection of essays by Martin Luther King, Jr., explaining in the clearest language possible the truly life or death choice behind his theology of non-violence.  The friend? One of the first people to prove the possibility of James Baldwin’s understanding that a bonding occur between: “the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others.” [Again, from The Fire Next Time]

In an interview published in The Black Scholar [reprinted in Conversations with James Baldwin), Baldwin puts it plain, as plain as he could be when his interlocutors would allow him room to soar like an eagle.  He is asked whether political themes play a role in his writing. Oh, the man reminds us all that he left the church but the church never left him: “The role of the artist is exactly the same role, I think, as the role of the lover.  If you love somebody, you honor at least two necessities at once.  One of them is to recognize something very dangerous, or very difficult.  Many people cannot recognize it at all, that you may also be loved; love is like a mirror.  In any case, if you love somebody, you honor the necessity endlessly, and being at the mercy of that love, you try to correct the person whom you love. Now that’s a two way street.  You’ve also got to be corrected.  As I said, the people produce the artist, and it’s true. The artist also produces the people.  And that’s a very violent and terrifying act of love.  The role of the artist and the role of the lover.  If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.  Insofar as that is true, in that effort, I become conscious of the things that I don’t see.  And I will not see without you, and vice versa, you will not see without me.  No one wants to see more than he sees.  You have to be driven to see what you see.  The only way you can get through it is to accept that two-way street which I call love.  You can call it a poem, you can call it whatever you like.  That is how people grow up.  An artist is here not to give you answers but to ask you questions.”

My family sent me Baldwin and King. These men anointed me from afar, as a child in the wilderness is claimed for some task that will benefit the people. “Find the words and use them well. Speak honestly and tirelessly to those you love, even when they allow you ‘no name in the street’.”  That is all right, in the long run. “I told Jesus it would be all right if He change my name…” I never told the world it had anybody’s permission to call me anything but a Child of God.

King's acceptance of that name, “Child of God,” influences his writings in Strength to Love. His variation on the theme of consciously loving the other is to talk about having a “tough mind and a tender heart.” Both King and Baldwin start with an assumption concerning the dominating culture that is America eternally (or at least from then to now) about African American people. African Americans are, in the mind of the other, incapable of the “higher faculties” (as Jefferson claimed about Phillis Wheatley). But we actually do know what we are talking about, when we talk about racism, prejudice, violence, economic inequality, oppression, and abuse. We remain ignorant only at the risk of death. “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.”  And for King, making America conscious meant forcing the guardians of power and domination to see the hatred that was soul-destroying for all concerned. Deciding to love the one who seeks to destroy you takes the “dogged strength” of Du Bois; the artistic genius of every singer and dancer and preacher and comedian and photographer and poet (traditional or contemporary) we have ever allowed to correct us. From Frederick Douglass to Richard Pryor; from Sojourner Truth to Nina Simone; from Bert Williams to Stevie Wonder and Curtis Mayfield and Sam Cooke; from Wheatley to Nikki Giovanni; we have always given birth to the poets to call us all to consciousness. 

But who are they today? And where do they prophesy and challenge us? What dismays me more than a little is that in the face of the rabid forces that refuse to admit the reality we all share, the artist/poet/prophets have gone underground or have become nearly mute in their utterance.  King demonstrates a pure joy in his rhetoric when he describes “softminded individuals.” (Ah, so, yes; he is a poet, too.  A purveyor of terrifying love.) “Softminded individuals are prone to embrace all kinds of superstitions. Their minds are constantly invaded by irrational fears....The softminded man always fears change…For him the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea…Dictators, capitalizing on softmindedness, have led men to acts of barbarity and terror that are unthinkable in civilized society.” And then King introduces a reference that is as pertinent today as it was fifty years ago—and also eighty-eight years ago: “Adolf Hitler realized that softmindedness was so prevalent among his followers that he said, ‘I use emotion for the many and reserve reason for the few.’”  

Leaving absolutely no doubt in the mind of anyone who has picked up this book to read, King says, finally,”Softmindedness is one of the basic causes of race prejudice….Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings…There is little hope for us until we become toughminded enough to break loose from the shackles of prejudice, half-truths, and downright ignorance.  The shape of the world today does not permit us the luxury of softmindedness. A nation or a civilization that continues to produce softminded men purchases its own spiritual death on the installment plan.” (Strength to Love, 2-5).
Young females shot and raped in Afghanistan for attending school. Children beaten, tortured and killed in Syria.  The lost children of the Congo. Orphans in Haiti. Trayvon Martin. Oscar Grant.  The Tea Party. The denial of essential validity for Barrack Obama. Sequestration.  Homeless veterans. Hungry children in the U. S. al Shabaab - a Somalia-based al-Qaeda affiliate group, murdering the innocent in Nairobi.

We know whereof we speak. We have always known that we began in hell and had to fashion our wings so that we could fly away.  Ah, but then, we – as profoundly as Melville’s Ishmael – “we have returned to tell what the end will be.”  “We know our wings are gonna fit us well…We tried them on at the gates of hell.”  Without love, for ourselves, our children and those humble enough to be conscious, we would have crashed long ago. Or believed that the fire was fatal and never tried to fly.

Who is there today to sing the truth-telling song we need, so that we can learn to move in the darkness? 

Monday, September 2, 2013

"Still Down at the Cross"

During the televised commemorations of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington, while historical scenes of the first march were being broadcast, there was, in one excerpt, a brief moment capturing the crowd around the 1963 podium, with King at its center. Directly behind him was James Baldwin.

And from that scene the memory began.

Answering the question put to me in a radio interview about the 50th anniversary, “Where were you on August 28, 1963?” I told my interlocutor, “I was secure in rural Minnesota, at our Jesuit seminary. We had no regular access to any media (such as they were in 1963), so I didn't know about the March on Washington until my father sent me news clippings, for my birthday (in early September).”  I could have said more about that birthday package; but since we were talking about the March as it inevitably focused on Martin Luther King, Jr., and his speech, I did not let the memory spring forth during that interchange, fully-formed from my brow.

My father. My father sent me a birthday gift. My father sent me yet another installment of his never-ending tutorial on black culture and black manhood. The object carrying the power was a book. My father sent me The Fire Next Time, the two essays James Baldwin collected and published in January of 1963.  I was living in a building that had a total occupancy of nearly 250 men, located on 750 acres of reclaimed wetlands, surrounding a lake. I have no idea how many people lived in the nearby small town, St. Bonifacius. But I do know that I was the only black person anywhere in that vicinity. For the vast majority of the inhabitants of the seminary, the small town, the county, I was in fact the first and only black person they had ever seen. I learned a valuable lesson during the four years I lived in that place. Being born into a culture does not make one an expert in that culture. My father knew that; and so much more. Two or three times a year I would receive gifts from him: books and music, from Baldwin’s book to Billie Holiday’s music.  I did not know the desperate hunger in my spirit until the gifts arrived. 

My father’s voice had been a constant annotation of black history and culture from the time I began grade school. Pictures in magazines, stories in newspapers, performers on television all were contextualized by his interjections. There was no idle time, no period when I just existed without this dynamic. From Du Bois to Josephine Baker, to Earl Hines, to Emmett Till, I knew that people and events were supposed to matter to me. Because my father drew the map. But there in the seminary, all anew for the first time, I understood so much more of my father, in those few pages of Baldwin’s book. Our conversations over the previous years of interjection and elaboration had always been brief. He told me what to look at, listen for, and consider, when dealing with issues of race. He instructed me in names, dates and events. I listened. I doubt if I ever spoke during any of those lessons. I listened. But hearing in my head Baldwin’s voice, I was hearing once again my father’s tutorials. What James Baldwin said in paragraphs and pages connected me to my father. I knew immediately why my father sent me The Fire Next Time. If he could have told me all that was in his heart, he would have said just these things. Especially what is contained in “My Dungeon Shook.”

My father had been teaching me history, through music, through the performers we watched on television or in movie theaters; through the pictures in Ebony and Jet and The Chicago Defender. So, sparked by Baldwin’s presence in a film clip, once again, fifty years later, I again took up the book and read.

When he was sixteen years old Baldwin left the church (which he joined at the age of fourteen), he tells us, because he could no longer believe “that there was any loving-kindness to be found in the haven [he as a boy preacher] represented.” But he carried something powerful with him, something he scatters throughout every book he ever wrote. “In spite of everything, there was in the life I fled a zest and a joy and a capacity for facing and surviving disaster that are very moving and rare.”  Oh, how my soul looks back in wonder, at how we (Baldwin and I; and my father and mother, to be completely honest) made it over, having to face the inescapable truth of the absence of loving-kindness in so much of what is called “church” in our world.  But what Baldwin fled, I joined. The zest and joy he remembered in his church, I remember in my family. The map of one’s exile may display different contours from that of another’s; but the ache of absence is common. Baldwin’s “Letter from a Region in My Mind (the second part of The Fire Next Time),” became a letter to a region in my mind – written by James Baldwin and sent to me as an apostolic exhortation by my father.

When I first learned of the notion of Sankofa, I instinctively claimed it as the emblem of my work: to return to the past and bring forth what is needed for today and tomorrow.  To bring forth the old and the new from the treasure house of culture is the essence of all pedagogy. James Baldwin left the church in order to find his true calling. He became a witness, a prophet; spirit-possessed and frantic to be understood, he was Jeremiah and Amos and John the Baptist. And this is what I learned from the words of this prophet, to be renewed for every generation.  “To accept one’s past – one’s history – is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.  An invented past can never be used; it cracks and crumbles under the pressures of life like clay in a season of drought.  How can the American Negro’s past be used?  The unprecedented price demanded – and at this embattled hour of the world’s history – is the transcendence of the realities of color, of nations, and of altars.”

America exists because of invented history. The New Eden could not be claimed until the original inhabitants of the garden were cast out or nearly exterminated. The New Jerusalem was constructed with the body-killing labor of enslaved Africans. The wealth bestowed upon the industrious and faithful was snatched from the hands and fields of the colonized at every ocean’s edge. The very faith that justifies the arrogance, cruelty and greed of the conqueror was plagiarized from the eldest cultures on the planet; and the custodians of those early systems of belief were “marked with the curse of Ham” and named, “barbarian.”

On that day in August, 1963, James Baldwin stood behind Martin Luther King, Jr.  Whatever he was saying at that gathering still whispers, these decades later. Referring, in this book, to W. E. B. Du Bois’ formulation that the problem of the 20th century was the “problem of the color line,” Baldwin sees that problem to be “a fearful and delicate problem, which compromises, when it does not corrupt, all the American efforts to build a better world – here, there, or anywhere. It is for this reason that everything white Americans think they believe in must now be reexamined.”

With a rhetorical eloquence that is the match of anything King said, months later, in 1963, Baldwin –in the noblest tradition of the great Old Testament prophets – calls all who hear him to a new level of conscious commitment to a “beloved community”: “If we—and now I mean the relatively conscious whites and the relatively conscious blacks, who must, like lovers, insist on, or create, the consciousness of others—do not falter in our duty now, we may be able, handful that we are, to end the racial nightmare, and achieve our country, and change the history of the world.”

My father believed that vision until the day he died. He sent me the scroll and bade me “take it and eat it.”  And I honor him and James Baldwin and Du Bois (who died the day before the 1963 March), by invoking the blood of our new martyrs, the young women and men lost to us by the corruption of our culture, to “dare everything” so that we can avoid the conflagration that will be “the fire next time.”