Sunday, August 30, 2015

"Joshua Commanded the Children to Shout"

Continuing from the previous entry, we shall contemplate, once again, the reality of “Sankofa” as it describes one aspect of the performance of Africana culture.  Presented here are two very different images of the Sankofa Bird, which is always used to embody the principle of "return and get it" – the symbol of the importance of learning from the past, and bringing what has been learned into the present.

The first illustration, is a wood carving of the bird, reaching into its back to bring forth the nourishing egg of knowledge. The positioning of the carving replicates the Kongo Cosmogram, first mentioned in the Sankofa Muse entry, “Little David, Play on Your Harp” (May 16, 2014). That circle “describes” – simultaneously -- the movement of the sun from east to north to west to south; and the stages of life: birth, adulthood, elder status, and status of the “living dead” or ancestors.  What might not be considered of significance is that the movement of the cosmogram is counter-clockwise. The tension in that movement is found in many other performances of Africana culture.  Worth noting here is that this push, this resistant struggle, against our western cultural norm of linear progress is also found in one of the foundational repositories of African American religion: the ring shout.  The dancers move counter-clockwise; beginning slowly and, over time, dramatically increasing the tempo of the singing, dancing and percussive accompaniment.  Until they are possessed by spirits.

The multi-colored depiction of the Sankofa Bird, shown here, 
presents a shape that establishes a clockwise rhythm. This reversal of the traditional flow of energy has implications that deserve attention. One of the persistent worries nagging my soul at what I see happening in our communities, our country, our world is that those of us who have “moved around our circle of life” and have, chronologically at least, achieved the status of elder, all too often have earned the judgment that we have failed to hand on the vital lessons of our past to our young people who stand at the intersecting axis of the Cosmogram -- where they must make decisions about how they will act, for the benefit of the “beautyful [sic] ones yet unborn” and in keeping with the traditions that have guided the community for untold generations. What distresses my soul is the mounting evidence that some who should be teaching this have made, perhaps, too many concessions to the larger world in which we negotiate our survival; and have either not learned the lessons from our own elders and ancestors, or some of us have decided that much of our past can be worn as decorations and can be ignored as keys to unlock the power of our own history. Have we become existentialists in our intellect, believing that there is little in our past that needs to be protected? Coming into the field of Black Studies when I did, I learned that we who choose to study the struggle that marked the old ones -- and that marks us still – do indeed have a useable past and we have an obligation to be agents of Sankofa: bringing forth that which is necessary for today.

As must be evident to anyone who has spent any time reading these entries, or reading any other of my writings, or anyone who is even minimally familiar with my professional focus on Africana religion and culture, Black Sacred Songs (“The Negro Spirituals”) are, for me, sacramental texts. The songs carry within them “the power to make things happen” (as one of my great influences, Robert F. Thompson, defines the concept of √†she). The struggle against the power of enslavement, oppression, abuse and degradation that was waged by those who chose to survive the disruption and dislocation that was the Transatlantic Slave Trade – the lessons learned from that struggle are the foundations of what we should be teaching under any form of Black/African American/Africana Studies.  But in order to know that we have a past worth retrieving, we must first humble ourselves sufficiently to recommit ourselves to knowing that “the struggle continues.”  The lives we live must be praise-songs to our elders and ancestors.

The songs and stories of the ancestors carry messages that have been found useful, over and over. But what has happened in the last half-century, to turn these coded strategies of defining ourselves against the systemic effort to suffocate our souls, to turn these vessels of redemption and liberation into decorations.  Reversing the rhythm of the dance has far-reaching consequences.  No time will be spent on restating the challenge that can be found in another entry of the Sankofa Muse that deals with the embarrassing and demeaning misuse of one of the great claims of peoplehood and covenant – “Come By Here” (December 31, 2013).

What forces this meditation on Yoruba power and Catholic grace, are the murmurings of some of the culture’s elders who see nothing of our tradition in the Black Lives Matter movement that has been gaining in “wisdom and in grace” (as was said of the child Jesus when he had to teach the teachers in the Temple; Luke 2:46-50). A disquieting example of this phenomenon of chastising our young ones when we should be moving among them, bestowing blessings and nourishment for the tasks ahead of them is found in a column published by the Washington Post, on August 24, 2015 by Reverend Barbara Reynolds.   Rev. Reynolds sees little that is redemptive or culturally consistent in the actions of the Black Lives Matter participants.  Establishing her status as an elder in the “Civil Rights Movement,” she scolds the BLM generation as being ignorant of their past, contemptuous of those who would lead them and guide them, and unmindful of how they present themselves in public.

In only one quotation that will be used here, Reynolds says, “The baby boomers who drove the success of the civil rights movement want to get behind Black Lives Matter, but the group’s confrontational and divisive tactics make it difficul.  In the 1960s, activists confronted white mobs and police with dignity and decorum, sometimes dressing in church clothes and kneeling in prayer during protests to make a clear distinction between who was evil and who was good….But at protests today, it is difficult to distinguish legitimate activists from the mob actors who burn and loot.”

Just as Rev. Reynolds was publishing these reflections, we were commemorating the 10th anniversary of the destruction of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. As far too many people have proved, it was not the hurricane that destroyed that city, but the aftermath, when the levees failed even the minimum requirements. And the levees failed in communities where time and again, political leaders confirmed the people’s understanding: Black lives don’t matter. We are commemorating the 60th anniversary of the murder of Emmett Till (August 28, 1955).  Till, whose death galvanized the generation to which Reynolds and I both belong, was horrific proof that nothing the present generation faces is new. 

As I was wrestling with my disappointment with this scolding from Reynolds, demanding decorum and church attire, I flashed on something else from the 1960s “freedom movement” that I doubt Rev. Reynolds would claim as part of her standard of resistance.  On June 28, 1969, in Greenwich Village, New York City, after yet another demeaning and dehumanizing (and “legal”) raid on a social establishment catering to a gay and lesbian clientele, the patrons of the Stonewall Inn finally said, “Enough is enough. Our lives matter.”  And when (as the reports note) “three drag queens and a lesbian” were arrested, a crowd of over 600 people responded with frustration, fearlessness and focus. “The Stonewall Riots” are still celebrated every year as an example of how change actually takes place in our society.

Every so-called “riot” in the United States in the 1960’s was part of the “civil rights” movement --- and those eruptions of frustration and rage were anything but civil. But each and every one of them whirled, shouted, flung decorum to the winds and said, “Here, in this cesspool to which we are relegated, we know that our lives matter. And to prove it we are willing to lose our lives. But attention will be paid.” An aside (of sorts): did the Black Panthers dress for Sunday school?  Did the young contemporaries of Barbara Reynolds who walked all over the South dressed in jeans and boots and wrinkled shirts get lectured because they were not in business attire?

Reading and reflecting on how a cohort of Black Elders chastise our young, I could not help but also “read” the great song of liberation, “Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho.”  The originators and curators of that song radically revised the biblical account. The problematic thrust of the original narrative – the story of an invading crowd of migrants and refugees convinced that they had a God-given right to appropriate the land of others – becomes a holy remembering of how the history of an oppressed people – any oppressed people – can provide a strategy for confronting whatever oppression looms in our present circumstance.  The singers of this song choreograph resistance through thoroughly African rituals.  Moving counter-clockwise – the song is a Ring Shout – the singers become the historical Israelites. But they are not claiming the territory of others; they are unleashing the power to make their own sense of the godhead within manifest in the world.

Dangerously other, problematic in their silence – except for the horns sounded by the priests, the “children” circled the walled city of Jericho, day after day, for six days. And, then, Oh, Glory! On the seventh day, they marched around the city seven times, while the “lamb/ram/sheep horns” were sounded. And then following the injunction of the God they were discovering, “Joshua commanded the children to shout.  And the walls come tumbling down.”

Even if Black Lives Matter participants don’t claim the song – and since they most likely were never taught the power inherent in the performance of the song, why would they make it theirs? – they are nevertheless reaching far back into their past and disrupting the order maintained by the privileged. They are teaching their elders how to remember their own past with much more complexity. And they are restless to claim the crossroads.

The Sankofa bird, much like the dove that descended upon Jesus at the Jordan, brings the power to make things happen to the young ones.

We professors of Africana Studies far too often avoid dwelling on the uncomfortable legacy that is locked away in these songs and stories. It is not that we are “unchurched,” or that the songs are far too simple to withstand the intricacies and sophistication of our theoretical gaze. Rather, even more simply, do we only teach that which we understand; not that which makes us personally uncomfortable.  But at this time, more than any time of our recent history, we need to return and fetch the power to transform this desert. And we also need to see that the children may have learned it anyway, because our culture can never be hermetically sealed away. The more we talk to each other, the more we have a responsibility to find silence within ourselves and let the voices of history possess us.

We who think that we have now gained some measure of stability and respectability are charged to renew our mission to educate our children with the “true truth” and to give the greatest gift imaginable: our trust that they are exactly where they ought to be on the circle that defines our people.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"Hold on, Hold on"

“You can’t plow straight if you keep looking back.” What this Spiritual says in this line is true, and at the same time deceptively problematic. If we do not look back, we cannot know how we got our hands on the plow, in the first place. The path through this seeming dilemma is the oldest strategy of Africana culture. You carry the past within you. Don’t look back. Look within. This is also the meaning of the Eucharistic Liturgy of the Catholic traditions: “When we eat this bread and drink this cup, we proclaim your death…until you come in Glory.”  It is also the essential ritual question of every Passover observance:  “Why is this night different from all other nights?” “This is the night when the Lord God brought us out of the land of bondage…”

Because we enact our defining moment, over and over and over. And we are renewed and made stronger for the next part of the wilderness wherein we find ourselves journeying. In a late-night conversation filled with anger and anguish and desperation, one of Faulkner’s heroes says, “It is not past…” The crumbling of that white hero’s sense of privilege led him to that anguished cry. But the bone-marrow deep understanding of how we carry our “infinite past” (to use Toni Morrison’s description) as a gift and not as burden is what makes those who accept our African-American roots capable of miracles of survival every day.

Now we stop for a moment in this “journey from can’t to can” (Mari Evans), and we shudder with exhaustion as we do look back, at an entire year (August 9, 2014) since Michael Brown was shot on a street in Ferguson, Missouri, by then-police officer Darren Wilson.  Exhaustion. Weariness. Undigested sorrow. Wonderment and worry. More and more young (and not as young) women and men have bled in streets and jail cells, on porches, in cars. And the death of some have been recorded; while the deaths of others have been subjected to the predictable, convoluted and twisted narrative of “inconclusive proof of wrong-doing” – on the part of the one wielding the instrument of death. The cry of the soul is “Why? And how long? And, where are you, Delivering God?”

Keep our hands on the plow? Why?
What do we plant? And what do we hope to harvest?
Will there be any following behind on this path, to be the harvesting promise of our dreams?

And then I hear the singing: “I know my wings are gonna fit me well/ I tried them on at the gates of Hell.”

So. We crawl and moan and mourn. And then we breathe the air sent to us by our ancestors. And the twisted limbs and wounded hearts and crippled hands push at the wall and we begin to lift up our eyes.

And what do we see?

The children marching, and chanting and clicking and typing and recording and becoming the flesh-and-blood drums and grapevine of this space and time. For them the prayer services and the “peaceful protests” and the marches were angry, focused and unrelenting. More than at almost any time in our American story of racial oppression and cultural domination, the collective power to define the terms shifted; plucked from the lips of the predictable purveyors of power, the words that mattered flew from the mouths of the children.

For as long as there have been photographs, there have been records of lynchings and riots and other acts of domestic terrorism. Justified by the laws that protected the inheritors of power, those who murderously rushed into the streets of East St. Louis and Springfield, and Atlanta and Detroit and Tulsa in the early days of the 20th century and who continue on today, cloaked and disguised in costumes of respectability, have now been confronted across the generations by the children who hold up their cameras and telephones and demand that the contemporary patrollers and vigilantes and ad hoc militia be seen for what they are and have always been.

Bob Moses, the quiet, determined, grace-filled sojourner for justice, once said that United States history was written by the children and young adults who were known as “runaways.” One of the enduring themes of the documents called “slave narratives” is that once the writer/subject learned to read and write, a strategy for self-liberation was quickly formed. These actual “liberation narratives” were published to speed the process of liberation of the thousands of others, left behind the veil.  Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Henry Bibb, and so many others could not rest until every effort and every possible resource was put into the freeing of this nation.  No one could be a better face for this than Harriet Tubman. Her return journeys to bring more and more from the wilderness to the oases of freedom were followed by her service as a true “soldier of the Cross” as she actively fought in the Civil War.


That “Moses of her people” and the Moses of Mississippi in the 1960’s put themselves into the middle of the host of those who began to wade in the very troubled water. What Robert Hayden said of Tubman, we hear in the full-throated cry of our young today:  “Rises from their anguish and their power….Mean mean mean to be free.” (Hayden, “Runagate Runagate”)

In the valley, where there is darkness, on the mountain top where there is fire and smoke; in the intersections of Ferguson, Cleveland, Cincinnati, or Baltimore, where there are all of those conditions – there are our children. So on the exact year-anniversary of the death of Michael Brown, the blessing and charge has to be invoked by all of us who have been in the storm so long:  we must do more than weep and worry. We must see in the young of this moment, the reincarnation of those who wrestled control of slave ships; of those who slipped through brambles and water and wilderness; of those who returned to be a Joshua of their moment. And we must see -- and tell them -- that they are the light shining in this darkness. Fighting every battle on their behalf we must demand that their lives be seen as the most precious “bread from heaven” ever given to a wandering, desert people. We fight to protect them. We struggle to understand them. We gift them with our protection if possible, and with our gratitude in every possible circumstance. They have been raised up as answers to our prayers.

The most wonderful of poets, Gwendolyn Brooks said this:

“In the precincts of a nightmare all contrary
wild thick scenery subdue.” (To Disembark, “Another Preachment to Blacks", p. 60)

And she also said this, and we all bear witness:

"It is lonesome, yes. For we are the last of the loud.

Nevertheless, live

Conduct your blooming in the noise and whip of the whirlwind.“ (“The Second Sermon on the Warpland”)

So, precious gifts, one and all, hold on.