Monday, January 19, 2009
Over My Head I See Freedom In the Air
On Monday, the Archdiocese of Detroit's Office of Black Catholic Ministries celebrated a Mass in honor of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr. I was invited by John Thorne, Coordinator of Black Catholic Ministries to do the first reading. It was an honor to be a part of such a numinous event, where we gave thanks for the blessings of our shared history, allowed our hearts to be filled for the future, and honored local servants for their social justice ministry.
There was an Urban Youth Choir, liturgical dance team (the Dearing Detroit Dance Company), and John himself sang a stunning solo, as did several others, all part of a special MLK Choir. Lovies, this Mass had everything I love about Church, the Eucharist, soul-shattering/soothing music, a procession complete with incense, a cathedral of touching beauty, and a homilist whose simple message stayed with me, massaging my heart with soft, gentle hands, changing me with each stroke.
Rev. Theodore Parker was the Celebrant, and every remembrance of his homily causes something strong and solid within me to stand up and sing. Fr. Parker asked us to imagine what it would be like to sit at the feet of Jesus along with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Oh my! The image was like an arrow, piercing my heart. I could see it as an icon, Dr. King kneeling before the Lord, Jesus reaching out to him with His hand outstretched in blessing and tenderness in His eyes. Dr. King looks up at Jesus and begins to sing, "Over my head, I see freedom in the air." What faith this martyr had!
Then Fr. Parker did something extraordinary, right in the middle of his talk. He began to sing those words that belong to an old Negro spiritual, which were transformed, like many others spirituals, into a freedom songs. Fr. Parker's reverberating bass repeated the words and familiar refrain, "Over my head, I see freedom in the air."
Can you see it, lovies? Can you get a glimpse of freedom?
The youth choir sat behind him, teenagers, and they too began to sing softly. We in the congregation joined in, our voices as soft as a baby's love and fine as a the first day of summer. The singing was also full of sorrowful joy, boosted by the history of people with skin like mine, beaten, jailed, hosed, attacked by dogs as fear mongers took desperate measures to ensure their right to hate remained preserved. And non-violent revolutionaries, black and white, continued to sing, though persecuted, for the freedom I enjoy today.
Many singing that day would not make it to the promised land that is now, as watch in wonder the first President of color sworn into office. Those freedom fighters in those days, sadly, not very long ago, saw freedom over their heads. But it was in the air. Not only could they see it, they could hear, taste, smell, feel it, just as I did at Mass.
Bernice Johnson, founder of the mega-amazing singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock, is instrumental in that song being part and parcel of my worship today. This is what she said about the first time she sang that song during and after a march:
We circled the jail twice and went back to Union Baptist Church, and Charlie Jones said, “Bernice, sing a song.” I started “Over My Head” and the spiritual goes, “Over my head/I see trouble in the air.” So I flipped “trouble” into “freedom.” It was the first time I had ever done that, especially with a sacred song, a spiritual that came from slavery. I realized that there was something about the march that had moved me to a position where I could use the songs I had been taught.
The singing in jail went on endlessly. Hours and hours. There were times we talked, but we sang more than we did anything else. And so the way in which we created community was through singing. That was when we felt the union. When we talked, then we could feel the diversity and the complexity of the union. And then sometimes when we would talk, the talk would go on for awhile and just because of the intensity of the diversity, we’d have to start singing again.”
Later, after she'd been released she wrote:
"The changing of my voice came after jail. In the first mass meeting, they asked me to sing, I sang the same song, Over My Head/I hear Freedom in the Air, but my voice was totally different. It was bigger than I’d ever heard it before. It had this ringing in it. It filled all the space of the church."
I know this ringing. I experienced it yesterday. It soared in the voices of children and old people, in the voices of all present in the cathedral. I was so happy those children knew the song. One of my Godfathers said if we don't preserve our stories, in a generation they'll be gone. I pray we never lose our precious stories, but even if we did, those children will remember our freedom songs, and perhaps, our singing will go on and on, like it did in that jail, when dozens of college students sang it.
I could hardly wait to create this collage. The photo is a copy of one of Dr. King's jail mugshots. I covered his identification number with a stamp that says, "Dream with Faith," to honor his life and work. The background is red, black, and green, the color of the African American flag, though I give no less honor to our American flag. God bless America. His nimbus is made from sheet music on tracing paper. Glitter gives it a little shine, and I framed the piece in glossy, black paint. My heart is touched every time I look at this collage. It just keeps speaking to me.
Today I will watch history unfold with my children, and I will remember this most amazing day, being tearful and reflective, in the sweet comfort of my home and the reverie of memories, my own, and those of my ancestors. I will be surrounded by my beautiful black family. Together on this incredible day, we will create a story to tell to our generations. As one, we will sing our freedom song, the eyes of our hearts toward heaven, seeing freedom in the air.
We shall overcome.