I love to sing and listen to Negro Spirituals. These songs tell a story of the tragedies and triumphs of an enslaved, yet forward looking American people. The weaving of the biblical narrative with their own story affirmed a mandate to strive for freedom while toiling in an oppressive, subhuman reality. These songs have a soulfullness and deeply experiential quality that draws the listener in to get a taste of what the original singers might have felt. At the same time, the listener is able to merge some of their own personal reality with the content of the song in a manner that makes that particular song theirs. This inclusion, soulfullness, and experiential quality is what gives the spirituals and the music forms it birthed (jazz, gospel, blues, R & B, rap, hip-hop) its distinctiveness.
On January 20, 2009, when Barack Hussein Obama was inaugurated as the 44th president of the United States of America I experienced a gamut of emotions and feelings (anticipation, jubilation, anxiety, pride, glee, happiness, fellow-feeling…to list a few) that bubbled up, over, and out producing smiles, tears, clapping, and cheers. In an instant I realized that I was there in Washington, D.C. at the podium in the freezing temperatures taking the oath of office. I was in the crowd waving the American flag with tears streaming down my cheeks. I was there seeing, being, and emoting the full weight of this historical moment. As I sat with my family, in the warmth and comfort of the family room on Georgia’s red clay, I was yet there in Washington, D. C.. This was my inauguration! This was my story. I, too, sang America. I was included. This spirit of inclusion is what had possessed me and so many Americans through the election and now the inauguration.
This inauguration was an American Spiritual, a praise song for the day, so masterfully interpreted by inaugural poet, Elizabeth Alexander, in her poem for that occasion. I experienced it in the same way I experience the Negro Spirituals. It drew me in, drew my story out, and became mine. Those Americans with the blood of African slaves running through their veins have for so long felt left out, even pushed out. The divisive rhetoric advanced by so many on both sides has done much harm to this country. Through this historic election, Americans of all hues, stations, religions, and national origins rejected the notion that there is a “real America” and by implication a “false America.” So many chose hope over fear and by doing so helped to dull the bright stain of racism so interwoven in our history.
We have only just begun and the challenges we face are as tough and complicated as ever. This day, this president, this spirit of the American people gave me a mandate to stay awake, participate, and contribute to perfecting America’s union.
This was an American Spiritual indeed, but not just for me. On that day we were all singing the same song, hitting the same notes. What once was a cacophony of discordant voices became a harmonious, melodic chorus.
Another poem comes to memory:
I, too, sing America. By Langston Hughes I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen When company comes, But I laugh, And eat well, And grow strong. Tomorrow, I'll be at the table When company comes. Nobody'll dare Say to me, "Eat in the kitchen," Then. Besides, They'll see how beautiful I am And be ashamed-- I, too, am America.