By Rev. Connie Seifert
For the record, it is Black History Month.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was remembered and honored in a week long celebration at my seminary long before the national holiday was observed. MLK graduated from Crozer Theological School in 1951. In 1970, that school merged with my seminary creating what was then called Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School. Every January, a whole week was devoted to remembering and celebrating his life, as well as challenging everyone to continue the struggle for justice and equality here in the United States.
A highlight of my seminary days was the gospel solo I got to sing as part of the week long festivities in my senior year. The solo was “My Feets Is Tired, But My Soul Is At Rest” – a bluesy gospel number honoring the life of Rosa Parks.
Rosa was the woman who unintentionally inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott. She was riding the bus home after a long and exhausting workday. The bus driver demanded that she give up her seat to a white person. She refused. She was arrested. The rest is history – a major chapter in Black History. And I got to sing about it.
In the aftermath of Rosa’s actions, Martin Luther King, Jr. and others organized the bus boycott which started the Civil Rights Movement – the nonviolent insistence on and pursuit of equal rights for blacks in white America.
This struggle for civil rights was born out of our history of slavery – a history which is often glossed over in our history books and classes. Rarely do we hear the voices of those who were slaves. It is difficult to hear the horrible reality of this practice from human beings who survived it. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to study this history while in seminary. There are plenty of resources available for everyone to learn more. Black History month is a good opportunity to do just that.
Did you know that there are thousands of interviews with slaves preserved in our government records? They were done after the Civil War. Did you know that there are hundreds of letters, diaries, autobiographies and newspaper accounts which preserve a ragged and rugged account of how people of color survived slavery? A good book to read as part of Black History month is We Are Your Sisters, a compilation of these voices from the past which is edited by Dorothy Sterling.
The participants in the great drama of slavery and freedom who talk of themselves and their world in these pages speak for tens of thousands of their sisters with whom they shared a common history, common daily experiences, and a common future.
One woman shared this:
I recollects once when I was trying to clean the house like Old Miss tell me I finds a biscuit, and I’s so hungry I et it, ’cause we never see such a thing as a biscuit only sometimes on Sunday morning. We just have corn bread and syrup and sometimes fat bacon, but when I et that biscuit and she comes in and say, “Where that biscuit?” I say, “Miss, I et it ’cause I’m so hungry.” Then she grab that broom and start to beating me over the head with it and calling me low-down nigger, and I guess I just clean lost my head ’cause I knowed better than to fight her if I knowed anything ‘t all, but I start to fight her, and the driver, he comes in and he grabs me and starts beating me with that cat-o-nine-tails, and he beats me till I fall to the floor nearly dead. He cut my back all to pieces, then they rubs salt in the cuts for more punishment. Lord, Lord, honey! Them was awful days.
Most folks can’t remember many things happened to ’em when they only eight years old, but one of my biggest tribulations come about that time and I never will forget it! That was when I was took away from my mammy and pappy and sent ‘way off two-three hundred miles from where I live. And that’s the last time I ever see either one of them, or any my own kinfolks!
These voices speak to us of our complicated past – a past where we have not always lived up to the opening statement of our own Declaration of Independence.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…
When these words were written the word “men” referred to non-Catholic, property owning white men over the age of 30. Throughout United States history, one group after another has struggled – and some continue to struggle – to be recognized and respected, to be considered as full human beings and counted as equals. This month we are invited to learn more about Black History – about their struggle – then and now.
A voice from Black History’s more recent past continues to speak powerfully and profoundly to the present. Many may not know his name, but his words have connected many souls to God over the years – and will continue to do so for all the generations ahead. I had the pleasure of singing some of his more familiar words at Don Foran’s funeral last week in Phoenix, NY. The song is the well-known and much loved, “Precious Lord” written by Thomas A. Dorsey. Mr. Dorsey is considered to be the Father of Gospel Music. This particular song is one which helped him to reconnect to God when he was in the depths of grief and despair. It was 1931 when in childbirth he lost both his wife and an infant son.
“People tried to tell me things that were soothing to me…none of which have ever been soothing from that day to this.”
Out of his need for comfort and the courage to go on living, came these words which soothed his soul – and continue to bring a sense of peace and promise to hurting souls for all of time.
Precious Lord, take my hand,
lead me on, let me stand.
I am tired. I am weak. I am worn.
Through the storm, through the night,
lead me on to the light.
Take my hand, precious Lord,
lead me home.
The voices who spoke out about the raw reality of slavery are not easy to hear. But we need to hear them – to understand and learn as much as we can from the mistakes of the past so that we don’t repeat them in the present. The soothing sounds of Gospel music are easier to hear. This music expresses eloquently the suffering of and the solace needed by any human soul when it is confronted by the problems and perils, sometimes the coldness and cruelty of life on earth. A good gospel tune will always reconnect our souls to the the peace and the promise of God’s goodness and grace.