Posts Tagged race

What does “Kumbaya” mean and why should we care?

Race, culture, humor, politics, stereotypes, class, language – a few topics that come up around the song “Kumbaya”.

Kumbaya is pigeon English of the phrase “Come By Here”.  I came across an excellent arrangement of “Come By Here” in the GIA African American Church Music Series. It was done by Uzee Brown Jr.  As I meditated on the meaning of the song, I was struck by the cry of the oppressed for the Lord to hear and respond. It’s a lament and a statement of faith in a God who does see and hear and is able to intercede and deliver. However, it’s a song that is plagued by an unfair stereotype as a symbol of irrelevant and meaningless expressions of pseudo-unity.

Wikipedia led me to this excellent 2006 article by Jeffrey Weiss published in the Dallas Morning News. Here’s a few select quotes:

Sometime between 1922 and 1931, members of an organization called the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals collected a song from the South Carolina coast. “Come By Yuh,” as they called it, was sung in Gullah, the Creole dialect spoken by the former slaves living on the Sea Islands. […]

Jump forward to the mid-1950s and the Cooperative Recreation Service, an Ohio-based publisher of songbooks for camps and scouts. Joe Hickerson, a folksinger and former director of acquisitions for the American Folklife Center, credits Lynn Rohrbough, the owner of Cooperative Recreation, with getting “Kumbaya” to the masses. If a camp wanted a music book with, say, 40 songs, Ms. Rohrbough would offer 30 from her stock inventory and add 10 new ones, Mr. Hickerson said. “Kum By Yah” – described only as an “African” song – was part of the Rohrbough inventory by 1956. As a result, it showed up in countless books of camp songs used by the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts and others. “The camp counselors who played guitar liked it because it only has three chords,” Mr. Hickerson said. […]

For the next 25 years, it was just one folksong among many. But in the early 1980s, something happened. “Kumbaya” became the English-speaking world’s favorite folksong to ridicule, the musical metaphor for corny camaraderie. How? Someone’s wondering, Lord. An extensive (and we do mean extensive) search of databases of newspapers, magazines and other sources turned up what may be the first ironic reference to “Kumbaya” in print, from Aug. 16, 1985. The line is from a Washington Post review by Rita Kempley of the comedy movie Volunteers: “Tom Hanks and John Candy make war on the Peace Corps inVolunteers, a belated lampoon of ’60s altruism and the idealistic young Kumbayahoos who went off to save the Third World.”

Read the article to get the whole story.

Anyhow, the whole topic seems to be a mixed bag of cultural misappropriation, political rhetoric, Baby-boomer nostalgia, commercialization of racial stereotypes, the American-style cross-pollination of  black and white music, to name a few. I’m not sure what to make of it all except to take the song for what it is, cultural baggage and all. In a lot of ways, this song tells a lot more about Black History than if a hypothetical slave-composed spiritual was unearthed by archaeologists in it’s original 19th century form. It tells a more complicated story that goes deeper than face value. Much of African American cultural has been either repackaged in a derogatory form for mass consumption (as in the Minstrel Shows) or (despite good intentions) has been dissected and sterilized by academic study. Kumbaya is an excellent example of a song that was made internationally available but in the process it was robbed of it’s meaning. What would the song have meant if it was left as the local prayer a few saints on the coast of South Carolina?

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How does it feel to be black in America?

This weekend, we had another church, Windsor Crossing, who we’ve been partnering with in ministry come to our facilities and basically take over for the whole Saturday to do a “Christmas Store”. The point of the store is to offer low-income folks in our church community an opportunity to purchase new toys for their kids at a reduced price.

I thought we could just plan to have our rehearsal in the youth room and everything would be fine. Everything did work fine for us, but there was a little awkwardness. As I pulled up to my church -where I am a member and on staff – I was met with a “can I help you?” from a few unfamiliar men directing traffic in my church’s parking lot. After parking, I passed by a bunch of unfamiliar folk, wearing name-tags and Christmas sweaters. They looked at me with an expression that communicated that I was not one of them, so I must be one of the “low-income” people. I must be a person in need. Emotionally, I felt very uncomfortable.

The next day, I was sharing my feelings with my friend, Darwin, who was also on the music team this weekend and shared my experience. Darwin, who is black, responded to my feelings by saying basically that I (a white person) got a little taste of what it’s like to have black skin in America.

Let me say at this point that I am very thankful for Windsor Crossing and all the volunteers that came out this weekend. They did an excellent job and I don’t think that there was anything wrong with how they interacted with me. Everything that I’m sharing with you was an internal experience that was an emotional (not very rational) experience. Feelings, not facts.

So what were those feelings? No one accosted me or anything really overt. For about 10 minutes, I just felt a sense of alienation in my own community. I felt like I was not one of the tribe. I was cheerfully welcomed but still an outsider. Perceived as a “shopper” at the store, I felt like the object of charity and not like a peer. (Again, I didn’t actually participate in the store, I’m just describing my feelings). It’s amazing how the phrase, “Can I help you?” is so offensive in certain circumstances.

So have you ever felt that way?

If you are black in the America, is this a true description of what can happen in stores, churches, or other institutions?

The innocent volunteers were unaware of what they were communicating to me; am I as unaware in my own interactions?

Is this an example of me just being hyper-sensitive? In a situation like this, I am the one at fault for reading too much into nonverbal cues?

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Intentionality in Multicultural Ministry

Intentionality means love. When I say that I love my wife, it doesn’t mean much until I actually do something about it. I made a public vow to never leave her. That’s a start. I make an effort to spend quality time with her. I give her significant gifts as well as provide for her needs.  I do acts of service and show affection. That’s demonstrating that my words are backed up with action to show that it’s true.

This is an important concept in ministering across cultures. I can say that we care about breaking down walls, stereotypes, and institutional racism, but if I fail to demonstrate it, then it’s all just talk. Intentionality plays a big part in my job. I choose music (both the short term -“what are we singing this week” and the long term – “what is in our repertoire”) based on an intentional balance of styles. This is not an attempt to “make everybody happy” but instead to make sure that we are all making sacrifices to the community as an act of intentional love. I also have to choose the line-up every Sunday. The skin color, gender, and age of everyone on the team becomes the face of our church for that Sunday. [picapp align=”right” wrap=”true” link=”term=prism&iid=166286″ src=”0162/9ebe4a08-8c3b-40c9-a477-fd5e5cdd6c49.jpg?adImageId=7968785&imageId=166286″ width=”234″ height=”351″ /]You might think that a multicultural church would attempt to be “color blind”. In fact, the only reason you would want that is if there was something specifically negative about color. Actually, who we are is a beautiful collection of believers who reflect different aspects of God’s image. If God is the light, then we, his image bearers, might be considered a rainbow, each reflecting a different aspect of his character. Therefore, we try to reflect our convictions in a visual representation every Sunday by who is up front leading.  Is that tokenism? Is that exploitation? No, I believe that it’s love demonstrated intentionally.

This past weekend was a reminder to me that intentionality still matters. Due to a set of unintended circumstances (or unintentional circumstances) we had a team that reflected a 7 to 1 ratio of white folk to black folk (technically, one singer is half Chinese but you get the point.) I actually had 4 separate people mention to me that they noticed this fact. If there were 4 that said something to my face, how many noticed, but were not likely to confront me about it? Now, I realize that we can’t have a perfect track record of being a full “rainbow” every weekend.  But, it did remind me that intentionality matters when you want to be a multicultural fellowship of believers.

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