Sunday, December 11, 2011

More Advent Resources: Transformative Truth Tellers, Odetta, Paul Robeson

More resources to feed the spirit during Advent:

Through a number of Facebook friends, I've discovered Robert Shetterly's Americans Who Tell the Truth site, and have been spending happy moments there recently, browsing through his portraits and biographies of courageous American truth-tellers.  An excerpt: Shetterly opens his biography of Walt Whitman with the following preface that Whitman wrote for the 1855 edition of his Leaves of Grass:

This is what you shall do: love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to everyone who asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown.

And that, of course, strikes me as a wonderful meditation piece for Advent, as well as a sample of some of the inspirational riches offered by this site.  If I had been telling the stories Shetterly tells here, I'd have mentioned that Whitman, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin and others studied by this site were not merely courageous truth-telling Americans, but courageous gay truth-telling Americans, whose struggle to claim their right to speak in openly gay voices was foundational to their struggle to tell the truth.  (Though the biography of Baldwin does mention that Bayard Rustin was "also an African American homosexual," implying that Baldwin was gay as well, it gives no indication of how large the struggle to claim his sexual identity was in Baldwin's life and work.)

And I might have included Harvey Milk in the collection.  Even with these somewhat troubling lacunae (since the time is long since past that we can expect gay people to be silent about who they are, and since historians increasingly speak the truth about gay lives in the past), I recommend this valuable educational site and its resources for feeding the spirit during Advent.

And speaking of Americans who have told the truth and refashioned our history as a result, and whose witness feeds the spirit during Advent: I find this New York Times interview with activist folk-singer Odetta Holmes deeply moving (the link will open a YouTube video).  Here's Odetta's response to the interviewer's question about why the work songs of prison camps and labor gangs, inherited from the work songs of the fields during slave days, are liberation songs:

You're walking down life's road, society's foot is on your throat, every which way you turn, you can't get from under that foot, and you reach a fork in the road and you can either lie down and die, or insist upon your life--your own individual life.  Those people who made up the songs were the ones who insisted on life and living, who reaffirmed themselves.  They didn't just fall down into the cracks and the holes.  

I happened on the Odetta interview as I was searching for performances of one of my favorite Christmas songs, the African-American spiritual "Mary Had a Baby."  As with "Es ist ein Ros' entsprungen," the German carol I discussed in a previous Advent posting, I have a sharp and specific memory of a transformative moment at I heard this spiritual--and that memory will always limn the song's powerful significance for me.

I was 14 or 15 at the time.  My church's youth choir was doing a pre-Christmas tour in Natchez.  During the tour, our choir director took us to a local African-American church to hear its choir sing.  

And I had never, in my entire life, heard such singing: gorgeous, soul-stirring music coming, as it seemed to me, right from the center of the being of each person singing.  It was singing that meant something, unlike the singing our little choir of privileged white young people staged.  It came--and this was transparently obvious from the quality of the singing itself--from the depths of experience of those singing the hymns.  From the seat of their souls.

To say that this performance changed my life in some significant way would be an understatement.  It certainly made me hear many of the spirituals I had heard performed by white church choirs up to that point, including ones my own choir sang, with new ears. 

And one of the songs performed that evening was "Mary Had a Baby."  Of all the renditions of this beautiful old African-American spiritual I can find online, I think I love more than any other the Paul Robeson video to which I link at the head of this posting.  If velvet could be a river, Robeson's voice would be a flowing river of velvet, filling the universe with its sweet but majestic music.

Another American truth-teller who deserves to be celebrated as people of faith look for indigenous resources that remind us of the value of telling the truth at all cost, and suffering on behalf of the truth one dares to see and tell . . . . Stories that should mean something to us at Advent time, since hope enters the world always through struggle . . . .  Hope exacts of us a price, if it means anything at all.

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