We got to see Mavis Staples (whom I wrote about not long ago) and the Blind Boys of Alabama last night. Wait – there’s more. Yesterday morning, I got an email from the Duke ticket office saying we could come early and hear Mavis in conversation with Tim Tyson, who is a visiting professor at the Divinity School and the author of Blood Done Signed My Name, a forthright memoir of growing up in Oxford, North Carolina that begins with the cold-blooded murder of a black man because he said hello to a white woman.
Mavis talked about growing up as a part of the Staples Singers, the family group that started out in gospel music, became a central part of the music of the civil rights movement, and then went on to mainstream success with “Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There.” When she talked about the last song, she even started singing the bass line:
do do do do DO do do dododo DO do.
She talked about what it was like to sing before Dr. King would speak, and about the songs that grew out of the long walk to freedom.
Once the Blind Boys had finished their amazing set, I moved up in my seat ready to hear that bass line for real. Instead, I heard another guitar progression that lives deep in my memory and she began to sing something I wasn’t expecting:
I pulled into Nazareth, I was feeling ‘bout half past dead
I just need some place where I can rest my head
“Hey, mister can you tell me where a man can find a bed?”
He just shook my hand, “No” was all he said
I dug around a little to see what I could learn about the song, and I found these two quotes:
It sounds pretty New Testament – no room at the inn, but this Nazareth is set in an American landscape. (Peter Viney)
In a typical Robertson lyric, a century or so of chronological time is abruptly made to collapse between us and an event. Suddenly we are involved in it, hearing the contemporary voices, seeing things happen. (Clive James)
I felt it all fall on me as the bass line started for real in the concert and she began to sing:
I know a place
ain’t nobody cryin’
ain’t nobody worried
ain’t no smilin’ faces
lyin’ to the races
Time collapsed on a personal level back to my tenth grade year and me walking out of the house to get in the car to go to school, hardly away from the door before I could hear the radio and start singing along. I hadn’t been in the States since elementary school and had no idea of how to be an American, much less an American teenager.
Time also collapsed in the present tense even as I’m trying to understand what it means to be an American in these days. The move here to Durham has been profound for me, particularly in the sense of moving to a place where diversity gets lived rather than just talked about. Not since my days living in Nairobi or Lusaka have I been a part of such a multiracial society and it’s happening in a place that in my lifetime wouldn’t let people of different races eat in the same places and drink from the same fountains. I feel as though I’m walking on holy ground.
There they sat last night: Tim, a white man whose boyhood memory is of a black man being killed in his hometown and Mavis, who told of her grandmother keeping her from drinking from the wrong fountain down in Mississippi and we listened as they talked and laughed and then we watched as they embraced.
If time can collapse in a lyric, then it can collapse in a moment as well.
Mavis spoke at one point about those in the Civil Rights movement needing to move beyond “We Shall Overcome” to singing “We Shall Not Be Moved.” The dream King spoke of has not yet been fully realized, but we keep walking forward. Alongside her words come some from Tim Tyson, taken from a Christian Century interview:
Ought we to teach this history differently?
We ought to teach an honest history, and avoid the celebratory and triumphal impulses of the kind that recently led the Japanese government to censor the history of Japan’s bloody imperial conquests during World War II. That does not mean underselling our achievements or wallowing in self-flagellation. We turn to our nation’s history, even its painful racial past, not to wring our hands but to redeem a democratic promise. At our best, we have sought to feed the hungry and free the oppressed. At our worst, we have practiced genocide and slavery. “The struggle of humanity against power,” Milan Kundera tells us, “is the struggle of memory against forgetting.”
Many in the mainline churches remember the civil rights movement as a kind of golden age, a time when churches were on the side of the angels. Is that accurate?
The church should never forget that mainline churches failed the African-American freedom struggle and mostly opposed it. The mainstream white churches of the South would not abide ministers who supported the movement. And though we think of the movement as based in the black church, most black churches were not part of the movement. Wyatt T. Walker, Dr. King’s field general in Birmingham, estimated that in the spring of 1963, the movement had the support of 15 percent of the African-American ministers in Birmingham. The notion that the church stood up strong during the civil rights era reveals a dangerous moral amnesia.
The language of journey is the go to metaphor when it comes to Lent. We speak of struggle and singularity of purpose, of setting things aside and turning our hearts toward God. As time collapses to mark the path before me, I keep thinking about those who marched together from Selma to Montgomery, singing
ain’t gonna let nobody turn me around
turn me around turn me around
I’m gonna keep on walking, keep on talking
marking up the freedom trail
Jesus is walking. Martin is walking. Mavis is singing; the Blind Boys, too. The great cloud of witnesses has gathered to see what we do with our leg of the journey.
They’ve put the weight right on us.