Two Songs

August 2002

Before I say anything else I want to ask a favor of you, to propose a trade: I wonder if we could trade songs. I’ll sing you two songs in the course of my talk, and you could do me the honor or singing your beautiful song when I’m finished speaking—would you? Thank you.

It’s been sustaining and inspiring to me this week, as it was last year, to watch you all in this work you’ve been doing, to listen to you as you make your way through our shared and terrible predicaments and try to make something new. This short talk will pretty much follow the pattern Ray Seidelman set this morning, when he said something like, “First I’m going to really depress you, then I’m going to try and lift things back up.” But you’ve already done the real lifting, in the faithful, determined time you’ve spent here; so mine will be less something new than a gesture of grateful solidarity, a word whose beauty you’ve reminded me of often these past days.

The first song I want to sing for you was made by my favorite poet: Anonymous. (Secretly I think that Anonymous is the author of all poems, wearing various disguises along the way.) Ray said to you this morning, “Let’s face it. You’re nowhere,” in part one of his talk, the depressing part; and this song was made by someone who was nowhere, for other people who were nowhere. (But the song is here, in this room, today, more than a hundred years after its making--and the people who were ‘somewhere’ then made no songs strong enough to travel this far and live this long.) It’s a plague song, to refer back to what Dean Hubbard said; it’s also an example of that elusive multiracial aesthetics Komozi Woodard mentioned, although the terms of its multiracial character are brutal and hard. It’s not William Van Duser Lawrence’s song, although it speaks to him as it would to anyone; it’s the gardener’s song, who as Barbara Kaplan told us lived in a cottage where the pub stands now. It’s a shadow song, in the way Dominique Malaquais used that word, when she talked about the current torments of South Africa and said, “This is the shadow of apartheid. It doesn’t go away.” It’s a revolutionary song, in the way Barbara Kaplan used that word, when she talked about people who walk the walk of real education, who value and protect informed, authentic expression no matter what the consequences; it holds quietly what she called “that renegade quality you all know and love.” In the terms of the ropes course I watched you valiantly navigate, it’s a song in dialogue with the impassable web, the log that won’t stay still, the rope that lets you fall. It’s a vulnerable song, in the way Nancy Baker used that word, contrasting it with ‘defended’; it draws on the power she described as being part of vulnerability, by which an individual or a group might live as an organism--might live--instead of functioning as a machine. While Komozi was talking about his anti-rat campaign he mentioned the Democratic Party machine, which his organization both touched with its radical work and defeated; and while he was talking about Spirit House in Newark the lawn mowers started roaring outside, and he said, “I’ve got a little competition here from the machines.” One of the leaders of the Zapatista movement—one you might have heard of, whose name is Marcos—calls the agenda of neoliberal economics and politics “la máquina,” the machine. This song is a grief song with its back to the machine.

I thought of singing it for you as I listened to you singing your song, first in the sports center Tuesday morning, then here this morning, when both times tears came to my eyes. I did what I usually do in this circumstance: blinked rapidly, looked down, and generally hoped that this visible evidence of deep emotional contact, of union, with you, most of whom I hardly know, would disappear as quickly as possible. But the person who made this song was braver than that, and wiser, and knew something about the ways to fight la máquina that leave the mechanical terrain entirely. That make something new. That live, in spite of all pressures to the contrary. The song is called "Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child."

(Sing it 3x, ‘almost gone’ in the middle)

That song misses someone. There’s a ghost walking through it. I kept seeing and hearing a relative of that ghost these past few days, listening to all of you. I have a daughter who’s eight, who’s learning about the world, who came home from school one day last year and said, “We’re learning about culture—you know, how people work, how they live, how they do things.” Among other things, a culture is a way people who don’t personally know each other can recognize each other: the way Ray Seidelman’s and Dean Hubbard’s talks recognized each other, even though they met for the first time today; the way Dominique Malaquais, whom I met this week, described in her talk the photograph of South African voters I look at every day, next to my office bathroom sink, and the poster of Muhammad Ali leaning over the word ‘Fighter’ in the hallway of my apartment. The part of the Sarah Lawrence culture assembled here misses something, as if it were a someone; you could call it democracy, or community, or freedom, or justice, or peace, or a new world—you could call it Anonymous—but we miss it. We want it. We want to smell it and taste it and breathe it and see its face. Its faces. We want it bad. We cover this up in various ways, with jokes, with wry smiles, with fatigue, with complaining, as Nancy pointed out, with trivia, with changing the subject, with blinking away tears; but a lot of the people who spoke here this week—enough to make a culture—want that new world the way you want a person you love and can’t touch and can’t get out of your mind. They’re bound to it. They believe in it, helplessly. They think about it in one way or another every day. They carry the hope for it like a scar. They want it and they’re willing to work for it. And they want you to want it like that too.

The second song I want to sing for you is “Amazing Grace,” which I’m sure a lot of you know; maybe you also know that it was written in the eighteenth century by a man born in London called John Newton, who was a slave trader. Just to give you an idea of the hollowing of a living person that such a vocation requires, let me add that his mother died when he was seven; he was impressed into the Navy at nineteen, deserted, was recaptured and publicly flogged, and was eventually exchanged into service on a slave ship, where he became a servant of a slave trader and was flogged some more. When he was twenty- three, a friend of his father’s bought him out of this arrangement, and John Newton eventually came to captain his own ship, a slaver. He converted to Christianity in the middle of a storm at sea, in his twenties, but, as was and is widely true, didn’t find his religion to be in contradiction with how he made his money; he didn’t write this song until much later, just as he didn’t begin to have regrets about his participation in the slave trade until much later, when he was fifty-five, and didn’t begin to fight against slavery until he was sixty, which he continued to do until his death at eighty-two—one of those militant senior citizens Komozi referred to.

But as I mentioned before, Anonymous is the real author of this song, via John Newton; and Anonymous wants that new world as badly as the people at Sarah Lawrence do, and is considerably less shy about saying so. The song is in the form of a white hymn; but I always hear in its tune the gravity and knowledges of the black voices John Newton must have heard. It’s a turncoat song, a renegade song; it’s also a union song, a song that refuses to accept separation, to sing when you stand by the impassable web and work together to pass your friends through—a song that loves loudly, in Lyde Sizer’s words from that first day. Although I am not a religious person in the song’s terms, it’s a tipping song for me, in the way Lyde used that word, away from melancholy and its temptations, away from dangers, toils, and snares, toward the strength you need as a lover of Anonymous, to keep on. The strength to, in the words of the group I watched on the ropes course, Row, row, row your boat. To put an oar in, as Phoebe Hanshew would say, who wrote that letter Linwood Lewis showed you. On the first day here, Erica Chapman ended her talk by saying, “That would be my hope. I hope I’ll see you all this year and (she paused for a second) do something.” You’ve done something already here, something to be proud of, something I’ve felt lucky to be near. I’ll finish with what I’m pretty sure is the only imperative in this talk: Keep on. Thank you.

(Sing it 3x, ‘dangers toils & snares’ in the middle)

All right, now it’s your turn.