Today, we honor the memory of MLK. We honor the memory of civil rights movements throughout the world. Throughout history. We honor the heroes and victims of oppression, those whose names we know, and those who transformed the world without ever being acknowledged. We honor the knowledge that if we do nothing, pain and oppression will divide us. Or, we can choose to let it unite us.
This day, we sing. We sing songs written with hope, despite the authors being in the depths of despair. We sing poetry from some of the darkest times in this country’s history. We remember that these are not the only songs born of despair and oppression. These are not the only dark times in our nation’s story. This is not the only culture who has been oppressed in this “land of opportunity” or in the world.
These songs have power. This is why we sing these songs still. This is why this congregation is singing these songs today. The power resonates within us, sparking harmonics within us from our own experiences, even though our lives are unrecognizable from those who wrote these songs. And we all have experienced having a piece of poetry move us, even if we do not understand what the poem is saying. And what are songs, after all, other than multi-dimensional poems?
It is important to recognize that these songs – indeed any art form – is an entry-point for understanding. When we sing these songs, a door has been opened, and we stand on the threshold of someone else’s experience, of another culture. A very important step. But we are only on the threshold. “Negro Spirituals” – or the folk songs of some of my ancestors – are incredibly complex pieces of music, with multiple layers of meaning which have been purposely disguised. Like the Afro-Brazilian dance form of capoeira, these songs teach life saving skills and give hope, in code that was understood by the people for whom they were intended, and hidden from oppressors. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” tells a people who were not allowed to read how to navigate to freedom using celestial navigation. “Wade in the Water” reminds people how to evade the bloodhounds tracking them by using rivers and streams. There are countless other examples.
So we sing these songs today, and we take away various meanings, based on our own experiences and what our own church community is working towards today. Whether it is saying good-bye to a beloved friend who is moving, or reminding ourselves that we have the power to change the world. And I ask that we remember and respect that this art is complex, with meanings that are perhaps beyond our grasp at the moment. That we are only on the threshold. The door has been held open a moment. Whether you do the work required to cross the threshold and enter the room is up to you.
[Below are a series of recordings. The first is one the congregation will sing this Martin Luther King Jr. Sunday, January 19, 2020; the second explains in detail the extraordinary coded map in “Follow the Drinking Gourd;” the third is another code song, “Wade in the Water” with some written explanations; and the last a related Civil Rights song that we will hear sung this Sunday.]