Friday, July 04, 2008

Rene Marie's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing!"

What incredible memories this evoked:

Craig came to my cubby a few days ago to ask if by any chance I'd heard about the African American singer who had opened a meeting of the Denver city council with a version of the Star Spangled Banner that combined the music of the national anthem with the James Weldon Johnson lyric known as the "Negro National Anthem." I'd missed it. But I instantly knew that it would have been highly controversial and at a level that few would truly understand. I knew because I'd been there -- long ago.

It had nothing to do with disparaging the old chestnut that few of us could sing anyway -- given the impossible range. It had to do with my personal reactions -- even in those early years -- to the very fact of a separate national anthem for black folks. An alternative anthem added to the confusion as I tried to search through a bewildering range of shifting identities for some kind of meaning... .

As a teenager who had grown up in the West and knew little about separate but equal treatment of people of color; little of white- or blacks-only school systems except only marginally -- and in a way that was far removed from a day-to-day ordinary neighborhood life where I grew up in a racially-integrated community among working class second generation Europeans for the most part. Who knew? But then came WWII and the great southern migration of folks for whom segregation was an accepted though surely demeaning way of life.

It was a neighborhood event. I'd seen hand-printed signs posted on telephone poles and bulletin boards around the neighborhood announcing that the noted African American educator, Mrs. Mary McLeon Bethune, would be coming to speak in the auditorium of Highland Elementary soon. The event was being sponsored by Rev. Marion Wildy's little Baptist church (now the imposing 5000-member Allen Temple) whose congregation met in a converted bungalow on 85th Avenue -- just around the corner from our home. I'd learned to say nothing to my parents about these programs (non-Catholic) but had learned to watch for them since hearing the great poet of his day, Langston Hughes, read from his work earlier that year in that same school auditorium. I would sneak away from time to time to test the waters beyond our Creole Catholic doorstep.

This would be my introduction to the Negro National Anthem. It was sung movingly by the audience just before Mrs. Bethune rose to speak. I knew the National Anthem -- and who on earth needed another one? I heard this unfamiliar "anthem" as vaguely subversive. Alien. Why on earth would there be a separate anthem for Negroes, anyway?

I later learned that this great hymn has been sung in historically black schools and colleges throughout the southern states since it was written by the Johnson brothers over a century ago. It was resurrected during the Civil Rights struggles in the 50s and 60s. Its lyrics speak of the road of immeasurable pain and sorrow that has been the course of black Americans for centuries. But it also speaks of the inextinguishable ray of hope that persists among America's people of color to this day, despite a history that bespeaks of misery and rejection that has never been completely understood or resolved.

That Rene Marie has found a way to wed "O Say Can You See" with "Lift Ev'ry Voice" unites those disparate and often warring parts of myself and finally gives a "home" to those unresolved feelings that the old standard Anthem evokes each time I hear it. I hear and feel the power in the black hymn's lyrics differently; more deeply.

In time my life mirrored the lives of African Americans around me as the nation polarized around race in the mid-50s. I then began to find it thrilling to stand shoulder to shoulder with others who have "trod those stony roads," too. I memorized the words long ago, and now sing lustily along as if I'd never had that brief doubt about their legitimacy. In a nation that has never processed its shameful history of slavery and Jim Crow-ism; in a nation that has never apologized to those for whom the James Weldon Johnson poetry speaks so eloquently -- so profoundly -- this shrieks with irony! Cries that now demand an apology for expressing her variation on the theme of patriotism are ludicrous! Rene Marie's version of reality is beautifully captured by her arrangement and therefore speaks for millions who've shared that reality and who have little reason to be deceived by the oft-quoted, "... with liberty and justice for all," and every reason to want to jar the complacency of those who go through these nationalist rituals with little awareness of that irony. This, after all, has been the role of the artist throughout history. Up-ending hypocrisy is her calling. Rene Marie follows in the honorable tradition forged by the change-makers who preceded her; the poet, James Weldon Johnson among them.

Lift ev'ry 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.

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 have been watered,

We have come treading the path through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from our gloomy past, still now we stand at last
where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on our way,
Thou who has 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 meet 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!

Rene Marie used only the first two verses in her arrangement, and it's hard for me to know how they stand without the rest of the poem. Nonetheless, she has opened -- or maybe expanded -- a much-needed national conversation around our national symbols. It begins to look as if we're ready for those conversations, and we'll be much the richer for it.

It's high time that the rest of America learns to appreciate how
powerfully our poets have captured the collective soul and spirit of a people. Try reading Harlem's late great poet, Sekou Sundiata, and Nicki Giovanni, and Gwendolyn Brooks and don't miss "Crystal Stairs" by Countee Cullen. But most of all, try reading Lift Ev'ry Voice all the way through -- imagining that you're an African American living in today's world. This surely will not tell the whole story, but it may be the start of something significant ... .

Rene Marie has provided much to think about .. and may you, too,

have a thoughtful Fourth of July ... .

Photo: James Weldon Johnson, American Patriot and Poet.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

The rewarding reach of imaginative long distance teaching ...

There was a visit on Friday from Ms. Jennifer Mykytuk (interesting name), the seventh grade teacher from Fruitvale Middle School in Bakersfield, California. She'd come to hand-deliver a DVD of a play that grew from last spring's experience of my first participation in long-distance learning. It was fascinating at the time, and I had no inkling of what might evolve from it.

Her class was studying the period of WWII and the Rosie the Riveter and home front stories that are again capturing the attention of the nation as the direct result of the development of this new national park. The kids had run across stories in the media about me and of my humble WWII experiences and that brought the invitation to participate with them in preparation for a statewide history contest.

I believe I wrote about it at the time. It involved the selection of four young girls to do the interview with me. They'd thoughtfully prepared and forwarded a copy of the questions they would ask. On the date of our interview I sat in one of our offices -- miles and miles away -- to speak with them undisturbed in a conference call that lasted for about an hour. At their end the interview was being audio-taped for the classes. I learned yesterday that in the weeks that followed they'd written a play based on that interview and it was recently presented as their entry in the annual State history competition. They placed a very respectable fourth place, according to their teacher.

The youngsters actually made a field trip to the Bay Area in February (while I was on a 2-week training at the Albright Institute at the Grand Canyon) in order to meet me and to visit the park and tour the SS Red Oak Victory. I was so sorry to have missed meeting them at the time. But yesterday I was honored by receiving the DVD of their performance. What a thrill it was to sit in the quiet and view their work and the path down which our fleeting encounter had taken us. I felt humbled by hearing some of my words and thoughts that worked their way into the consciousness of the young through the magic of technology -- to reappear now in this brand new art form.

What a remarkable time to be alive ... .

What an amazing experience in education.

And ... what a responsibility to continue to keep myself informed and focused on the important lessons of this history that I'm being exposed to as time continues to pile up mercilessly behind me and more and more voices of the era are stilled.

And, Oh what I wouldn't give for a Faustian bargain that would match the time that the bank gave me on my last home mortgage refinance! Another twenty years would just about do it, I think.