Monday, February 22, 2010

Then and Now: Kumbaya

Demonstrators singing in Cambridge, MD in 1963; Joan Baez at the Obama White House concert of Civil Rights music. Why that didn't include holding hands and singing "Kumbaya"--in the post below.


A version of this was on the Rescued List at Daily Kos.

About ten days ago, the White House held a celebration of music integral to the Civil Rights struggles of the 60s. I recorded the PBS broadcast but haven't gotten around to watching it yet. But I'm pretty sure that among the songs by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan, etc., those assembled did not sit around holding hands and singing "Kumbaya."

But they could have. Because we did that, sitting-in, marching, demonstrating for Civil Rights. That was one of the songs that held us together. Now it's a common cliche of scorn and disdain, on the left these days even more than the right. It deserves better.

Not that it's such a great song (although Pete Seeger did try to add some African-style low harmonies--check him out on YouTube.) It was far from my favorite, but after Joan Baez recorded it in 1962, it did become part of the rituals that expressed the hopes, yearnings and commitments of a generation.

Not later, apparently. And certainly, not anymore.

I remember the first time I read what is now the common usage of "Kumbaya." And I remember how I felt.

It was a magazine article purporting to witness a group of young conservative Republicans drinking and talking in a posh Washington hotel, at the height of the GW Bush Youth takeover. They were disparaging the liberal idealists who didn't understand the real world, whose idealism was proven to be futile and naive. They made fun of them by proposing to light some candles, hold hands and sing Kumbaya.

As soon as I read that I felt strange. I saw us in the 60s, not just at the March on Washington (and though I don't remember specifically, it wouldn't surprise me if we had sung "Kumbaya" on the march to the reflecting pool) but marching through the streets of a midwestern town that had never seen anything like a black-and-white together demonstration, or later huddling with a much smaller group in the town square with our candles lit in protest of the Vietnam war, amidst angry shouts from passing cars.

In some circumstances especially, I'm sure we did look silly. And looking back, I realized the delicacy of what we were doing, and how weird it might look now. Non-violent resistance was at the heart of the Civil Rights movement, thanks to Martin Luther King, Jr. And so it wasn't surprising that he opposed the Vietnam war, and that a significant part of the anti-war movement adopted non-violence. If you were going to oppose a violent war, it made sense to do so without violence.

In this space I can only hint at what it felt like to light candles and sing together: We Shall Overcome, We Shall Not Be Moved, If I Had A Hammer, Michael Row the Boat Ashore, and Kumbaya. Some songs that had literal meaning for what we were doing, others that were more symbolic, and frankly, easy for a large group to sing.

And our singing together was the point. We were singing, not fighting. Though we sometimes did this in an innocuous "hootenanny" kind of settings, we were usually where we weren't supposed to be, doing what we weren't supposed to do. We were making a statement, and we weren't always safe.

There were proximate threats of violence around us at times. But we knew we were standing against a violent society, that reverted to trying to solve problems with violence. We were standing for Civil Rights, racial justice and equality, an end to an unjust war. But we were also enacting an alternative to violence, emnity, mistrust and cynicism.

We knew and we made the principled and factual arguments. We knew and sometimes had to face the rage and hate of the opposition. So the singing was to express our emotions, to affirm ourselves and to connect, not only with each other, but some of those who might hear us.

All political change eventually depends on cultural and social change. That change is not entirely based on rational arguments, or to appeals to self-interest. Such change involves shifts in perception and commitment, matters not entirely of the mind but also the heart.

While conflict and barely bounded violence in politics may be part of change, social change depends eventually on consent, and change of heart. While this kind of change is ultimately in the hearts of individuals, what prepares for it and precipitates it is often social: relationships, the possibilities seen and felt when observing others behaving in a way, and for a reason, that surprises them. That causes them to consider an alternative, emotionally as well as conceptually and then politically. So maybe it wasn't so bad that people saw us, young faces lit by candle light, daring to look ridiculous by sitting on the floor and singing Kumbaya.

I realize that the Kumbaya cliche is deployed today to criticize a naive idealism detached from practical politics, a wishful thinking or an excuse to fall back from a political struggle. But for all the need to practice politics with courage, we should also be mindful of the resurgence of violence in political life. As recently as Friday, Rachel Maddow documented the increasingly violent threats made not just by a right wing fringe, but by established Republican politicians and officeholders.

It has not escaped notice that this loose talk of hanging, loading guns and violent overthrow has a racist tinge, which relates it back to the Civil Rights movement. Such reversion to violence at any level is dangerous to all. We should not be contributing to that mood. However it is meant, the Kumbaya cliche suggest to me that even on the Left, the need in our present and certainly our future for the skills of peace is out of fashion and perhaps out of consciousness.

"Kumbaya" is just a simple song with roots in an American minority. Apparently it got picked on because kids later learned it in camp. Some people value it as a religious song. I don't particularly, but it's a target for precisely the reason I do value it: they could have chosen We Shall Overcome but that might look overtly racist, and besides the lyrics are militant. They could have picked If I Had A Hammer, but its symbolism is simple and connected to militancy, and besides, it doesn't sound quite as funny, as easy to mock, as the one word: Kumbaya.

Whatever it has come to mean, the point is scorn. And scorn is not going to get us very far. Cliches communicate quickly, but they are reductive, and often careless. Cliches of scorn tend to discourage openness to alternatives. Cynicism is self-limiting. The future will probably be hard, but it can be full of meaning. It's going to require compassion, cooperation, empathy and altruism, and a lot of lives are going to depend on face-to-face community, including very small ones. Enough people, say, to renew their commitment to each other and to what they believe in and how they live their lives, by sitting together, holding hands and singing something like Kumbaya.