I just had the pleasure of attending the Martin Luther King celebration at the Strathmore Music Center. There were several young minority artists extremely talented, as well as young students full of accomplishments and promises, which speaks well of the ability of Montgomery County to cultivate and allow to flourish, with a climate of inclusiveness and outreach to parents, those talents in black, Latino, Asian, minority children in general. I assume our minority kids in Montgomery County are not born smarter than those in other areas of the country. Would it be the Chesapeake Bay’s water?
But there I also had a different realization. The event was excessively religious, which kills me every time, but at the beginning a young pianist led the crowd on singing the Negro National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, by James Weldon Johnson. My anthropological self was looking around at the crowd and noticed that even black children – there were two just in front of me who couldn’t be over 8 years old – knew the song by heart.
It always surprises me why black people are so enamored of the church, given that the church and religion in general was used to enslave and oppress them. A friend said church is therapy for many. Perhaps. But, it is still incomprehensible for me. I was wondering if, maybe, the beauty of the music, which can lift any spirit, indeed, the same way that the beauty of some churches in Europe left me gasping for air, command in the people what they assume is a supreme, heavenly calling, and I just know and experience as the sublime effects of beautiful art. I do believe in rapture, I just experienced one reading A Mercy, by Toni Morrison. Literature and music can make me go heights I never knew possible. Pair the excellent music with the excitement of the congregation as a whole, spearheaded by a pastor screaming nonsensical things, and the knowledge of being in the only place in which you are considered human, and even looked amorously down by some freedom loving and almighty God, yeah, I guess I would believe too.
It does require a great measure of imagination and forgiveness. It requires imagining an almighty God who can give you the Holy Ghost, but can’t give it to your masters so they come to terms with the injustice of their ways. Actually, this is the God of your masters; they gave it to you, as they were taking away your lesser gods…and your freedom. It requires forgiving the ways in which God ignores your prayers day in and day out while your daughters are being raped, your sons are being beaten, and you are violently separated from your children.
At the celebration a soloist sung the Negro spiritual Watch and Pray.
Master Going to Sell Us Tomorrow
Mother, is master going to sell us tomorrow? / Yes, yes, yes! / O, watch and pray.
Going to sell us in Georgia? / Yes, yes, yes! / O, watch and pray.
Farewell; mother, I must leave you / Yes, yes, yes! / O, watch and pray.
Mother don’t grieve after me / No, no, no! / O, watch and pray.
Mother, I’ll meet you in heaven / Yes, my child! / O, watch and pray.
It is beautiful. It tears your inside apart. And it gives you an incomparable rage. Pray for what??
I know many will say, Martin Luther King was a pastor, the churches also were a place of organizing, etc. Yes, but none of that has anything to do with God. Actually, the “watch and pray” attitude preached in churches for centuries helped sustained slavery much longer than it would have otherwise, if slaves hadn’t had the hope of heaven.
Yes, religion poisons everything.
But time has passed; the church clearly has not answered the problems. In many cases, it has become the problem, such as in the fight against AIDS, in the struggle for equality for gays and lesbians, and the promotion of a culture of abstinence without solid health education that, if it had worked, the numbers of teenage pregnancies wouldn’t be on the rise.
Sadly, the church has become the locus of bigotry in many cases, and, in particular, against the people who don’t believe. The stronghold of church in society, the continuous need of explanation of people’s beliefs or lack thereof, the interference of religion with state matters should be things of the past, but aren’t. If society were ok, I could ignore it. But it does not seem like it is, is it now?