Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Earning the Right to Sing the Song

I have always loved listening to a really good song sung with enthusiasm. There is a certain drama to music; it can stir feelings inside you that you had previously underestimated. And one of the most dramatic songs I can think of is the one they call the national anthem of the civil rights movement, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. For sheer drama it’s the best. I’m old enough to have watched the civil rights movement as it passed by me in the newspaper headlines or on TV. But I was a mere observer. I have to admit that in the 50’s and 60’s I was preoccupied with growing up and going to school. As much as I love “Lift Every Voice and Sing” I never earned the right to sing the song. And, in fact, it is a difficult song to sing. It changes tempo near the end and always throws me for a loop. But for sheer listening pleasure, nothing can beat it. Our church organist sometimes sneaks it in on the Sunday before Martin Luther King Day. So few notice it or remark on it that I sometimes feel like Margaret has given me a private concert that day. It’s simply one of the most stirring songs around.

So the moment I had been waiting for came the other day watching Rosa Parks’ funeral. I knew there would be no other time that I would ever be able to hear this song sung quite like I could hear it from the original leaders of the civil rights movement, probably a thousand voices joined in the song they have sung probably a thousand times gathered together in one place-the Metropolitan AME Church in Washington DC. And it was a magnificent sound. The words bear a second look, though, especially when thinking of the death of one of the great women of the movement.

Lift every voice and sing till 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, till victory is won.

I never earned the right to sing the song. But the people who did were at that funeral singing it with feeling. I noticed most of the members of the congregation were singing it from memory and with great enthusiasm. The passing of Rosa Parks was not so much a declaration of victory over the enemy of bigotry as much as it was a celebration of the advances that have been made by sacrificial people like her-- people of dignity and grace. Only one face was strewn with tears, the rest were composed. Gray was the dominant hair color. These warriors had learned to compose themselves 50 years ago.

My first brush with racial intolerance came around 1964 when I attended a weekly Creative Writing class at the downtown Dallas library. The library decreed the class be integrated even though the high schools weren’t at that time. There was no mention of race, it was simply accepted. One night at the bus stop I was talking to a black class member while each of us waited for our bus to take us to totally different parts of town. A white man came up to me and asked me point blank “Is this boy bothering you? I told him no and the man left. I never went on to explain that Rodney was a friend.

Five years later Beaven and I had just bought a house in Oak Cliff when a black couple moved in next door. Beaven’s initial fears that it would ruin the neighborhood were met with the fact that the husband was a lawyer who graduated from Harvard. And the wife ended up as one of my best friends. Their son, Marc, was born the same week as Emily. And they played together in our back yard until the year the Rangers moved away. The last I heard from them was about ten years ago when Marc was in the Air Force Academy. It was Carla Ranger who educated me on what it was like to be black in the 50’s and 60’s. She earned the right to sing the song.

She told a story of going to a sit-in. She was partnered with a black man and they went with a white couple to a restaurant and all four quietly sat down together at a table. That’s all they did—sit down. The owner came to their table and held a gun to the black man’s head and told them he would shoot them if they didn’t leave. As hard as it is to believe I know this happened. Carla told stories of her husband Marcus being taunted and abused by the white boys in Fort Worth where he grew up. This was real and it happened to friends of mine. She was part of the movement Rosa Parks helped start. And I wonder if the youth of today, both black and white, fifty years after 1955 have any realization of the sacrifices made to bring us all to where we are today.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet, with a steady beat, have not our weary feet
Come 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, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

A few years ago I attended a special service of Thanksgiving at Perkins School of Theology on the SMU campus. It was to commemorate the graduation forty years ago of its first black student, the now-famous Rev Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. I had heard of him and the famous choir from his church. To tell the truth I went more to hear the choir than to honor his graduation. He had a few interesting stories to tell about being the first black student and the choir was dependably fantastic.

At the end of the service I found myself holding the hand of the black lady next to me as we stood and sang “We Shall Overcome.” It gave me the strangest feeling in my gut—not to hold this woman’s hand or to sing the song—but to realize this was the first time in my life I had actually sung the famous song myself. Where had I been all these years? Why had I never been in a place or situation where this song was sung?

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast 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.

I never earned the right to claim a place in the choir to sing either of these marvelous songs. I was only an observer. But it made me wonder what cause is out there now that I should be joining. What is important enough for me to risk? Victory is sweet but it is sweetest to those who risked something to gain it.

And that is the question I leave you with today. What needs to be changed in our world today that you would risk something for? I’m not sure I want to die without ever having risked something to make a change in our world. It is the risk that makes the gift precious.


Anonymous said...

I hear you, Sister. I have always felt self-conscious singing that gorgeous song because, like you, I have not earned the right to sing it. But a part of me says we white folks still NEED to sing it. We need to join in solidarity with our African-American brothers and sisters and "forever stand true to our God, true to our native land." We need to pray to be kept "forever in the path." The victories that were so preciously earned fifty years ago are still extremely fragile. I'd love to add this song to the medley of patriotic songs my church sings on the Sunday before July 4, but I'm still struggling with the same question -- have we earned the right to sing the song?

nancy said...

I felt ashamed that I just learned of the poet James Weldon Johnson earlier this year. He wrote the lyrics to "Lift Every Voice and Sing." I can't remember how I came upon his series "God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse" but with a title like that I had to know more! The "Prodigal Son" is one of my favorites:
"Young man -
Young man -
Your arm's too short to box
with God."
The poem goes on, but I'll let you investigate on your own. During my research I learned that there is a videotape of this series with James Earl Jones as the reader. I have goose bumps just imagining how great it would sound!

Mouse said...

Wow. That's a powerful post.

I think the same way sometimes, about not earning the right. I feel like I can't empathize with some people, because I never experienced what you experienced. I never experience what they experience on a daily basis.

It certainly makes me think.

I really like your blog.