stand up and sing


    Naomi Shihab Nye is one of my favorite poets and one of my heroes because of the way she wages peace with words. When I found a book of her poetry I did not have, You & Yours, I whipped out one of my Christmas gift cards and gave it to myself. This was the first poem:

    Cross that Line

    Paul Robeson stood
    on the northern border
    of the USA
    and sang into Canada
    where a vast audience
    sat on folding chairs
    waiting to hear him.

    He sang into Canada.
    His voice left the USA
    when his body was
    not allowed to cross
    that line.

    Remind us again,
    brave friend.
    What countries may we
    sing into?
    What lines should we all
    be crossing?
    What songs travel toward us
    from far away
    to deepen our days?

    When I first read the poem, I recognized Robeson’s name as that of an actor and singer from an earlier time, but I didn’t know why he had to sing into Canada, so I did a little research. Here’s what I found.

    Paul Robeson was born in 1898 in Princeton, NJ, the son of a freed slave who became a Presbyterian minister. He received a scholarship to Rutgers, where he became an All-American football player. He then graduated from Columbia Law School, but left the law soon after because his secretary refused to take dictation from a black man (not the words she chose) and he saw no way around the racism in that field. In the mid-twenties, he entered the theater. After singing “Ol’ Man River” in Show Boat, he decided singing full time was what he really wanted to do. One biography describes his growing social conscience this way:

    Robeson had been giving solo vocal performances since 1925, but it wasn’t until he traveled to Britain that his singing became for him a moral cause. Robeson related years later in his autobiography, Here I Stand, that in England he “learned that the essential character of a nation is determined not by the upper classes, but by the common people, and that the common people of all nations are truly brothers in the great family of mankind.” Consequently, he began singing spirituals and work songs to audiences of common citizens and learning the languages and folk songs of other cultures, for “they, too, were close to my heart and expressed the same soulful quality that I knew in Negro music.” Nathan Irvin Huggins, writing in the Nation, defined this pivotal moment: “[Robeson] found the finest expression of his talent. His genuine awe of and love for the common people and their music flourished throughout his life and became his emotional and spiritual center.”

    A PBS biography continues the story:

    During the 1940s, Robeson’s black nationalist and anti-colonialist activities brought him to the attention of Senator Joseph McCarthy. Despite his contributions as an entertainer to the Allied forces during World War II, Robeson was singled out as a major threat to American democracy. Every attempt was made to silence and discredit him, and in 1950 the persecution reached a climax when his passport was revoked. He could no longer travel abroad to perform, and his career was stifled. Of this time, Lloyd Brown, a writer and long-time colleague of Robeson, states: “Paul Robeson was the most persecuted, the most ostracized, the most condemned black man in America, then or ever.”

    He wasn’t allowed to leave the US for eight years, when the Supreme Court reinstated his passport. By then he had gone from being a noted celebrity to persona non grata to most. It was on one day during those eight years in the fifties that Paul Robeson sang into Canada.

    Remind us again, brave friend. What countries may we sing into?

    At the interfaith service before our governor’s inauguration, a rabbi (whose name I can’t find anywhere) quoted another rabbi, Abraham Heschel, who marched with Martin Luther King from Selma to Montgomery and then wrote afterwards:

    For many of us the march from Selma to Montgomery was about protest and prayer. Legs are not lips and walking is not kneeling. And yet our legs uttered songs. Even without words, our march was worship. I felt my legs were praying.

    It is a sad thing to me that I grew up in a denomination that is rooted in the South and never met a white minister there who had prayed with his legs.

    Remind us again,
    brave friend.
    What lines should we all
    be crossing?

    Archbishop Desmond Tutu is best known for being one of those whose nonviolent resistance broke apartheid in South Africa. Now he is singing across lines about the way the world treats gay and lesbian people.

    “We struggled against apartheid in South Africa, supported by people the world over, because black people were being blamed and made to suffer for something we could do nothing about; our very skins. It is the same with sexual orientation. It is a given.” Mr Tutu says he could not have fought against the discrimination of apartheid and not also fight against the discrimination which homosexuals endure. “And I am proud that in South Africa, when we won the chance to build our own new constitution, the human rights of all have been explicitly enshrined in our laws,” he said, adding that he hoped this soon would also be the case in other countries.

    We talked with one man during the inauguration festivities who told us of Deval Patrick going to visit his eighty-year old father, by his son’s definition, a real Boston Irishman. The son was worried about how his dad might take to the idea of an African-American governor and he wanted his father to meet this man whom he respected and supported. When the old man met Patrick, he apologized: “I’m sorry I didn’t know how to do more back then.”

    Remind us again,
    brave friend.
    What songs travel toward us
    from far away

    to deepen our days?

    Darfur is singing.
    Sierra Leone is singing.
    Iraq is singing (a different song than we are hearing)
    Our immigrants are singing.
    Our poor are singing.
    Our gay brothers and lesbian sisters are singing.

    The list is far from exhaustive. The melody, no matter in whose voice, yearns for resonance in our hearts and minds.

    Stand up and sing, brave friends.



    1. “I’m sorry I didn’t know how to do more back then.”

      That’s huge. I wonder how many other people have come to the same realization in their lives and never stand up to sing.

      Heschel wrote, in “The Prophets” (a book “about some of the most disturbing people who ever lived”), that “to us a single act of injustice – cheating in business, exploitation of the poor – is slight; to the prophets, a disaster. To us injustice is injurious to the welfare of the people; to the prophets it is a deathblow to existence: to us, an episode; to them, a catastrophe, a threat to the world.”

      A corker of a post, Milton. Your words and your thinking are prophetic. We should all be prophets.

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