On a recent design call, my co-facilitator and I asked participants what they hoped would come out of an upcoming 2-day social justice and equity workshop, as well as what they hoped wouldn’t happen. Of all the responses given, the one that stood out was “I hope we won’t just have lots of Kumbaya moments that don’t lead to anything.”
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard aversion towards Kumbaya moments.
I recall a gathering of leaders of community-based organizations who were envisioning how they might collaborate in their youth-led racial healing programs. After a morning of reflection on the strengths and challenges experienced in each model, I led participants in a guided meditation in which they visualized what would be happening in their communities if their youth-led healing programs were successful.
As we broke for lunch, a new participant joined the group and asked what she had missed. Someone summarized the morning reflection and added, in what sounded like a mildly mocking tone, that the morning ended with a Kumbaya moment.
From these and other instances, I gather that Kumbaya moments, for those who are wary of them, are times of building relationships, connecting with our hearts, and centering Spirit. From the skeptical, I get the sense that these practices are not considered harmful in and of themselves, but are luxuries, distractions, and indulgences given the real work of making our communities more just and equitable.
For many, Kumbaya conjures up images of hippies around a campfire earnestly singing in unison, imploring people to just get along, while they themselves are safely tucked away from the realities of the day. I invite you to listen to this rendition of Cumbayah by Sweet Honey in the Rock to help disrupt this image of appropriation.
In this recording, which features a tapestry of voicings accompanied by an infectious hand-clapped rhythm, I hear a powerful prayer that is solidly grounded in the urgency of the moment. What is most powerful for me are the sounds that penetrate my being. In Sweet Honey in the Rock’s rich harmonies, each differently textured voice sounds fully and weaves intricately with the others. Sweet Honey’s embodiment of this song brings to life a vision of the community I want to live in.
The song is also made powerful by rhythms that require no more than the human body. You can sound out this song anywhere – in the streets, the board room, the public hearing, the bank vestibule, the court room, the CEO’s front lawn, the Senate floor - not just where instruments can be set up or plugged in.
And then there is the song’s herstory.
While there are different versions of Cumbayah’s origin story, the one most likely is that it was a song of the Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Islands of Georgia. According to Dr. Althea Sumpter, an independent scholar who focuses on preserving the work of her Gullah Geechee elders, the Gullah Geechee culture has been “linked to specific West African ethnic groups who were enslaved on island plantations to grow rice, indigo, and cotton starting in 1750, when antislavery laws ended in the Georgia colony.” According to Dr. Sumpter, Gullah Geechee people resisted the prohibitions of enslavement and sustained ethnic traditions from one generation to the next through language, agriculture, and spirituality. (Source: Winick, Stephen. “History of an Old Song.” Library of Congress. https://blogs.loc.gov/folklife/2018/02/kumbaya-history-of-an-old-song/)
When heard against this backdrop of herstory, Cumbayah is transformed from a naïve panacea for peace to a call for action amidst the most oppressive of conditions.
In the earliest sound recording of Cumbayah, the song is sung by a singer identified as H. Wylie. In the singer’s dialect, which is most likely a form of Gullah, the word “here” is pronounced as “yah”. This seems to be one of many factors leading to the song’s English translation: Come By Here.
By the 1940’s, Cum Ba Yah was widespread among African Americans in the South. Recently, my second mother, a theologian and writer who came of age in the U.S. in the 1960's, shared how the word “here” reveals the song’s potency for her given the contexts in which it was sung.
Come by HERE in the fields of unjustly indebted sharecroppers;
Come by HERE amidst the terror of lynch mobs;
Come by HERE at this segregated lunch counter;
Come by HERE at this school entrance blocked by jeering parents;
Come by HERE in the rain of blows by riot police.
Come by HERE in these rat-infested tenements.
Come by HERE in this firebombed church basement.
Far from touchy-feely, these Cumbayah moments are ones in which courage is called upon in the face of atrocity and resilience is practiced in the face of dehumanization.
The next time we are in the midst of a Cumbayah moment,
a moment when the forces of oppression are bearing down on us and our people,
a moment when we sense a power greater than us fortifying our strength and vision,
a moment when our shared humanity is illuminated by a deep sense of interconnectedness,
I hope we remember how essential these moments are to our work for justice and liberation.