Archive for March, 2010

A Story about a Story

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Spent last night at a wonderful 50th Anniversary Celebration of the Student Sit-In Movement here in Nashville. The night’s focus was upon the role the students of American Baptist College (where I’m now Academic VP) played in the Movement: John Lewis, Bernard Lafayette, James Bevel, and others. Bernice Johnson Reagon sang us through the history of that Movement, providing historical commentary and clarity to the genesis of certain freedom songs and the healing power of others. Rev. James Lawson, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Dr. Bernard Lafayette brought remarks. Many others who were in high school and college here in Nashville during the movement and took part by cutting classes and showing up for marches were there on the front row last night. Old men and old women now. But their spirits didn’t know it. They beamed. They lived to tell the story.

I’ve been around lots of preachers this week, preachers who spice their sermons with wonderful stories, stories that serve as allegories, parables, anecdotes, life illustrations to the scripture they are expounding.

I’m not much a storyteller. In fact, I probably only know two stories worth telling. One of them I share with you today.

Today I tell you a story…about a story.

An old story handed down in many different versions over many an evening fire. The story is about the great wise woman, the Ancestress. The Ancestress was dying and sent for her children. “I have acted as intercessor for you, and now when I am gone you must do this yourselves. You know the place in the forest where I call to God? Stand there in that place and do the same. You know how to light the fire, and how to say the prayer. Do all these things and God will come to see about you.”

After the Ancestress died, the first generation faced trouble and did exactly as she had instructed them, and, sure enough, God came to their rescue. But by the second generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire exactly the way the Ancestress had taught. Nevertheless, when times got difficult they remembered the special place in the forest and said the prayer, and, sure enough, God came.

By the third generation, the people had forgotten how to light the fire, and they had forgotten exactly where the place in the forest was. But they spoke the prayer, and, sure enough God came.

By the fourth generation, everyone had forgotten how to build the fire, and no one knew any longer just where in the forest one was supposed to stand, and finally the exact words to the prayer itself could not be remembered. But one person in their midst still remembered the story about it all, and stood one day in the midst of battle and recounted the story of it all to the rest (the story of the the Ancestress, the forest, the fire, the prayer). And, sure enough, God came.

That’s “Ms. Mahalia” to You

Thursday, March 18th, 2010


You can never go wrong with Mahalia Jackson.

I chose this video of Mahalia Jackson singing “How I Got Over” because despite its horribly poor quality Mahalia Jackson’s powerful presence and powerful talent as a singer burst through. I love this video because you witness the transformation in Mahalia Jackson as she moves along in the song. Did I say “transformation”? Change that. Watch the performance closely and you can almost pinpoint the moment when the Spirit…the Anointing…heck, the Holy Ghost (as we say in the Pentecostal church) falls and Mahalia Jackson “The Queen of Gospel” loses herself in the song.

Mildred Falls, Jackson’s longtime accompanist, is at the piano providing Jackson with sure footing each step of the way. The fact that the audience is mixed probably explains why Jackson tries to remain composed and dignified for as long as she does. But, as you can see for yourself, the shouts of the few blacks in the audience who recognize the Spirit when it falls is all Mahalia Jackson needs to loosen up and let it rip. I could be wrong but the mood changes somewhere around the four minute mark. But it’ll take another full minute before Jackson sings with eyes wide open. The initial nervousness is gone. Mahalia Jackson moves from singing and performing to testifying and praising the Lord. The singer merges with the artist who gives way to the Gift.When the Spirit is done, Mildred Falls’ consummate accompaniment on the piano provides Mahalia Jackson with the musical footing she needs to find her way back to herself and to bring the song to a close.

For those of you who don’t know, “How I Got Over” was written by another legendary gospel singer, Ms. Clara Ward.

Don’t be fooled by Jackson’s gospel persona. Mother didn’t play. Some biographies claim Mahalia Jackson would track down  producers and managers who tried stiffing her after a performance by sneaking out the back door without paying her. Such an image about Jackson, of course, run counter we have of her as a sweet gospel singer. But believe. It was track ‘em down and prove that you mean business, or go hungry. “He went thataway, Ms. Mahalia.”

MahaliaMahalia Jackson was born on October 26, 1911 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Her nickname was “Halie”. Her earliest memories and influences were the sights and sounds of New Orleans, steamships on the Mississippi, jazz bands playing in the streets, and the music of Bessie Smith. Young Mahalia was to find her greatest inspiration at the local Baptist church. Mahalia Jackson was raised by her aunt after her mother’s death when she was five years old. In 1936 she married a graduate of Fisk University named Isaac Hockenhull. Despite the money offered Mahalia, and the pressure from her husband to sing secular music, she refused. Later in 1941, when she’d had enough of her husband’s gambling ways and pressure on her to turn to secular singing, she divorced Hockenhull. (Remind me to write a blog one day about why marriage often eludes gifted women.) Mahalia Jackson would go on to record in 1946 the hit song, “Move On Up A Little Higher” which would make her a household name.

In the end, Mahalia Jackson would work herself to death. Throughout the 1960’s and into the 1970’s she toured Europe, the Caribbean, Asia, Japan, India, and performed for the President of Liberia. Her last international a concert took place in Germany where she collapsed while on stage. She came home to Chicago with plans to relax, open up a flower shop and beauty salon with the money she earned from her music career. But that was not to be. On January 27, 1972 Mahalia Jackson died of complications from diabetes and heart failure. A compelling contralto voice died when Mahalia Jackson died. But her memory sings on.

Like I said, you can’t go wrong with remembering Mahalia Jackson here during Women’s History Month. Enjoy.

(Pssst. Don’t let the video’s spotty poor quality here and there make you give up and click away. It’s worth sticking with to the end. We have to accept the footage the way we find it when we’re trying to experience some of these classic performances from the past.)

Whose Image Is It Anyway?

Sunday, March 7th, 2010

Happy International Women’s Day everyone!

When I read Ruby Sale’s reaction to last night’s Academy Award for “Best Supporting Actress” going to Mo’nique for her role in the controversial “Precious”, I thought to myself, “this is a post for Something Within.”

What say you, is Mo’nique’s role in “Precious” anything for black women to leap up and celebrate about here during Women’s History Month?


Many Black people, even Black feminists, seem happy and excited that Mo’nique won an Oscar. I must admit I am not among this group. As a matter of fact, I am stunned at our contradiction. HOW CAN WE CELEBRATE THE SUCESS OF A BLACK ACTRESS WHO MAKES IT ON THE BACKS OF BLACK WOMEN? What I mean is how can we celebrate a Black actress who accepts a role in movies that represents Black women as bad mothers as did Precious and the movie Backside. Is her individual success more important than the consequences of feeding the public images of Black women as whores, immoral and unloving mothers and parents who love dope more than their children? I am not denying that this type of Black woman exist. Nor am I saying that all representations of Black women must avoid our failures. I am saying however that these narratives and representations are dangerous in a popular culture where this is the pervasive image.

Miss MoWhen Black actresses sign on to a script like Precious, they fertilize these lies and locate their work within the contemporary lie of Black women welfare queens that Ronald Reagan created and the conservatives used to the hilt as another example of Black immorality and bad parenting. Conservatives used the misrepresentation of Black women to carry out punitive and racist public policies. Mo’nique cannot have it both ways. Nor can we! She had a perfect opportunity to represent and she failed us. It does not make her right because White Oscar members give her legitimacy. As Audre Lorde said our “wants do not make our actions holy.” Our hunger for fame should never exceed our hunger to advance ourselves and the race with dignity while creating grounds of resistance and reaffirmation that preserve and extend our liberties. In other words, what is the end game of Black art in a society where Black is a dirty word and oppression is a silent killer that touches all of our lives?

Everything To Me

Thursday, March 4th, 2010

Haven’t been able lately to post as often as I’d like. New job. Still traveling and writing. Parenting a teenager-who-lives-in-my-house. 5:30am Lenten devotional webcasts. And so on, and so on, and so on.

Grateful to the friend who shared this morning this spiritually moving video of Fred Hammond’s “Everything To Me.”  Blessed my soul. From beginning to end. I can make it today. Yes, I can.

Lord, I’m grateful to discover this morning that I’m not so far from you that I can’t perceive your Presence.