This being MLK Day, here is a repeat from 1-18-17
I sing a lot. Often I’m in public when a song pops into my head, so I don’t sing out loud, or even sub voce, just in my brain. One song that became part of my repertoire when I was only about twelve was “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” because my voice was changing to bass, and that song sounds very nice in low bass as you’re walking by yourself on a gravel road, keeping your spirits up in the dark. I hoped it sounded intimidating to any wolves or demons that lurked in the dark, waiting for a tenor.
That’s what I thought “Swing Low” was all about, keeping one’s spirits up in the dark, starting with the slaves in the South, who had to keep their hopes up not only in the night but in the day.
A few years ago Helen and I spent some time at a continuing education event. One of the professors, an heir of slaves, did a workshop on what we have traditionally called “Negro Spirituals.” I had learned in history classes as an undergrad that the Negro Spirituals had a political dimension, and I added to my repertoire songs like “Oh, Freedom,” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” and “We Shall Overcome.” Our professor elaborated on that theme, how the slaves communicated with one another, often right under the noses of their slave masters, by singing directions on how and when to escape. I find that both inspiring and thrilling.
Our professor, however, would not acknowledge any “spiritual” dimension to the “spirituals.” Those songs, for him, were all and only about bodies escaping from slavery, not at all about souls and spirits escaping from slavery.
I understand that, as much as a white person can, which is far from completely. But hope is never one dimensional. Hope is always multi-level.
I’m now in that upper 2%. No, not that 2%, the ones with all the money, but the 2% who will die next. That is where you get just by living long enough. I still have hope for escape from the wolves and the demons, but I have hope for escape of my soul from a declining body into a new reality in a way I could not have when I was in that other 98%. We never move out of one level of hope; we only add new levels.
Hope is different from wishing. Hope pulls us on when there is no hope, in this moment, in this year, in this presidency, in this life. I wish for things to be different and better. My wishes will not all come true. But I can sing, in a now-faltering bass, swing low, sweet chariot, coming for to carry me home and know that my hope is built on nothing less… and know that hope is real even when wishes fail.
John Robert McFarland
See, I’m not writing again.