by Ralph Brauer | 1/22/2009 10:28:00 PM
I doubt anyone will ever again sing "My Country Tis of Thee" the way Aretha Franklin sang it at the Obama Inauguration, because not even she will sing it that way again. That's because in gospel you sing what you feel. You testify. And if anyone testified on that singular day it was Aretha Franklin along with the man many term the father of the Civil Rights Movement, the Reverend Joseph Lowery.
As most people, know Franklin's roots are in gospel, in part because she is the daughter of one of the most revered figures in the African American Church, the Reverend C.L. Franklin, who also was a close friend of another African American minister, Dr. Martin Luther King, jr. Her first album, recorded when she was 14, was a gospel album which was produced for the same label whose recordings of her father's sermons had made him a national figure.
One of my favorite Franklin albums is an all-gospel production that was recorded at her father's church many years ago. At one point in the recording, C. L. Franklin remarks, "she never left the church." Like Ray Charles, Franklin brought the rhythms and sounds of gospel to popular music, earning her the title the "Queen of Soul."
Those skills were showcased at the Obama inauguration where, like Charles, she took a patriotic song and endowed it with the soul of gospel. You knew this was going to be a performance for the ages when she gave the words "sweet" and "liberty" a particular cadence that reverberated with meaning.
Think for a minute of the task she faced as an African American celebrating the inauguration of America's first African American President. Her "testimony" had to both acknowledge the struggles of the past and yet also the triumph of the present. By drawing out those two words the way she did, she made you pause and acknowledge those meanings.
This took on even more meaning when she reached the words "land where my fathers died." Shortly after that she did an extraordinary thing I have not seen anyone acknowledge--she changed the words to the song, so that it directly referenced Dr. King's immortal words. The original lyrics read "every mountain side" which Franklin changed to "mountain top" the words King used. In addition, to highlight the change she repeats the word "every" several times so it sinks in.
Franklin then went on to sing the song's lesser-known final verse. By the time she reached the last two stanzas, I had lost it. The second-to-last stanza begins with the words "protect us by thy might." Franklin repeats "protect" over and over, so it becomes a kind of prayer and, given circumstances which provoked an extraordinary amount of security, also a wish for both the new President and the country.
Listen to her sing that one line again and again, for she endows it with all the hopes Americans had that day and have for the incoming administration. When she ends the song Franklin and her backup choir repeat again the desire to let freedom ring, in a way that she knew she was testifying. Had she sung it that way in her father's church there is little doubt in my mind that the audience would have been spontaneously shouting their own reactions.
Unfortunately, Franklin's singing became lost in the uproar over her hat. It was Ellen de Generes who put her foot in her mouth by wearing a reproduction of Franklin's hat, turning it into a joke. Actually had de Generes known what she was poking fun at, she might have thought differently, for the wearing of special hats--especially unique ones with a bit of flash--is an old custom for African American church women.
Michael Cunningham and Craig Marberry celebrate this tradition in their book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. Deirdre Guion calls it:
hattitude...there's a little more strut in your carriage when you wear a nice hat. There's something special about you.
The man who sold Franklin the hat, Luke Son, said the clientele for Mr. Song Millinery is 90% African American church-going women. So far from being a joke, Franklin's hat was the perfect accessory to her gospel-tinged version of "My Country Tis of Thee" and brought a historic piece of African American culture to the Inauguration.
The other person who brought a historic piece was the Reverend Joseph Lowery, who co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference along with Dr. King. It would take a space longer than this essay to detail Lowery's achievements, so suffice it to say if anyone in America deserved to deliver the Benediction at Barack Obama's Inauguration it was Lowery.
Lowery's beard--or more properly it should be termed a goatee--reminded me of W.E.B. DuBois, whose book The Souls of Black Folk used verses from what he termed the "sorrow songs" to introduce each chapter and in a chapter titled "Faith of Our Fathers" wrote of the African American church. He wrote:
The black and massive form of the preacher swayed and quivered as the words crowded to his lips and flew at us in singular eloquence. (p. 190)
The eighty-seven year old Lowery brought his own singular eloquence, proving a better poet than the official poet who preceded him. The rhyme and rhythm of his first phrases brought a hush to the audience.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears.
Now that is poetry whose rhythm directly echoes "My Country Tis of Thee." Think of the phrase "land where my father's died, land of the Pilgrim's pride." Lowery knew exactly what he was doing. To bring together weary years and silent tears, to hear those words from a man who knew exactly what he was talking about made he and Franklin the perfect bookends for the Inaugural. Ever the activist Lowery did not shy away from telling it like it is.
He has come to this high office at a low moment in the national and, indeed, the global fiscal climate.
For we know that, Lord, you're able and you're willing to work through faithful leadership to restore stability, mend our brokenness, heal our wounds and deliver us from the exploitation of the poor or the least of these and from favoritism toward the rich, the elite of these.
Lord knows what George W. Bush and Dick Cheney must have been thinking when they heard those words.
Having painted a picture of contemporary America, Lowery went on to preach of the hope that Obama's Presidency has brought to the nation.
And while we have sown the seeds of greed -- the wind of greed and corruption, and even as we reap the whirlwind of social and economic disruption, we seek forgiveness and we come in a spirit of unity and solidarity to commit our support to our president by our willingness to make sacrifices, to respect your creation, to turn to each other and not on each other.
Near the end, Lowery takes a cue from Franklin evoking the same word she used.
And as we leave this mountaintop, help us to hold on to the spirit of fellowship and the oneness of our family. Let us take that power back to our homes, our workplaces, our churches, our temples, our mosques, or wherever we seek your will.
Finally Lowery concludes with paragraphs that cannot help but complete the tie to his old friend Dr. King, even evoking the spirit and rhythm of that long ago day in Washington when King gazed toward where Lowery was speaking even as four score years later Lowery looked out to the place King had spoken from.
We go now to walk together, children, pledging that we won't get weary in the difficult days ahead. We know you will not leave us alone, with your hands of power and your heart of love.
Help us then, now, Lord, to work for that day when nation shall not lift up sword against nation, when tanks will be beaten into tractors, when every man and every woman shall sit under his or her own vine and fig tree, and none shall be afraid; when justice will roll down like waters and righteousness as a mighty stream.
In the midst of Black History Month, a day after Martin Luther King Day, both Franklin and Lowery reminded us of the pivotal role the African American church has played in American history. In a way, the African American church elected Barack Obama.
When I say the African American church I mean the African American church, for it is not so much about ministers as about congregations, not so much about Biblical fundamentalism and thou-shalt-nots as about principles. The Lowerys and Kings have justifiably earned their place in American history, but we forget the fact that as transformational leaders, they would have accomplished little without their congregations.
Much has been written about the Obama campaign, but no one has thought to link it back to the traditions of the African American church. Civil Rights veterans like Lowery would recognize the Obama campaign's tactics, as would anyone who has been a member of an African American congregation.
So when I say the African American Church elected Barack Obama I mean that in three ways. First, church leaders and congregations backed the candidate as they have backed no candidate in history. The huge African American turnout proved pivotal in this election. Without it Barack Obama would not have been standing behind Joseph Lowery waiting to take the oath of office.
The second way the church played a role in the campaign was to endow it with a sense of principle. The Civil Rights movement grew from the African American church's insistence on principle. The Obama campaign came to symbolize a renewal of principles for many Americans who voted for him.
The third way the African American church elected Barack Obama lay in lending its tactics to the campaign. The image of the Civil Rights Movement many Southerners tried hard to reinforce was that it was a top-down movement, that if leaders like King and Lowery could be stopped then the Movement would whither away. But in the records of the Mississippi State Sovereignty Commission--a secret police force formed after the Brown decision--lies another story, one of thousands of people who put their lives on the line for freedom.
One moment in the Movement could have served as a blueprint for the Obama campaign. Deprived of the right to vote for African American candidates by the State of Mississippi, the Freedom Democratic Party organized a shadow vote they called the Freedom Ballot. All across the state African Americans voted on Freedom ballots to show the segregationists that they would not be denied the right to express the franchise.
This grassroots effort, conducted with a major boost from African American churches, knit together people across the state. Nothing like it had ever been seen in Mississippi or in America. To minimize the violent segregationists that would be attracted like moths to a flame, organizers mailed the Freedom Ballot over a four-day period. The courage behind the effort remains difficult to imagine, for everyone involved in printing, distributing, filling out and counting the ballots literally put their lives on the line, testifying to a communal strength and resolve determined to rid the state of oppression. When the counting ended, over 50,000 African Americans had sent in ballots, a collective shout for freedom that reverberated across Mississippi to the very halls of Congress.
Nothing like the Obama campaign's grassroots effort had been seen until this November. Even on election night commentators could not quite believe it, but like those who participated in the Freedom Ballot, the campaign organizers knew the strength of their grassroots work.
As we now move forward into the Obama Administration, we would be wise not to forget the African American church, for just as it lay behind the election of Barack Obama, its people, principles and tactics will be there for him to call on when the going gets tough. Aretha Franklin all but said so as she sang, Joseph Lowery all but said so as he preached.
This is going to be a administration the likes of which America has never seen before.