In the months following the Civil War a group met in Nashville, Tennessee to create a school for former slaves and the children of former slaves. Clinton Fisk, a Reconstruction-era bureaucrat, endowed the new enterprise with much needed funds and a collection of abandoned army barracks. What would become Fisk University was born, one of the oldest historically black colleges in the U.S., producing alumni like W.E.B. Du Bois, Hazel O’Leary, and John Lewis.
It wasn’t easy for Fisk, an African American school in the Deep South of the late 1800s. Within a few years the fledgling institution hung on the precipice of bankruptcy. The music director – who was also Fisk’s treasurer and understood the grave financial crisis – organized a few of the students into a touring choir.
They called themselves the “Jubilee Singers,” an appropriate name. “Jubilee,” described in the Hebrew Scriptures, came around once every fifty years. It was a season of forgiving debts, returning repossessed property, terminating the obligation of indentured servants, and setting slaves free. These slaves-turned-singers hit the road, traveling church house to theater and stage to parlor, selling performance tickets with proceeds going to keep the Fisk school open.
Eventually, the Jubilee Singers made it all the way to Europe, singing for sold out audiences that included continental royalty. It’s alleged that Queen Victoria of England was so struck by the Jubilee songs that she quipped, “With such beautiful voices, these people must be from the Music City of the United States,” a name that Nashville has worn proudly ever since.
Yet, these liberated voices contributed much more than the money to save Fisk from default. More than any other group in history, they catalogued and preserved a unique genre of music: The African American spiritual. Singing about what they knew, they belted out tunes like, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See.”
These musical masterpieces – slave songs – were composed orally in the tyrannous fields of the American South, and would become the backbone of roots, folk, gospel, jazz, and Americana music up to the present day. But the Jubilee Singers weren’t interested in artistic creativity. They sang to stay alive. They sang to persevere. They sang to resist the injustice and “conformity of this world.” They sang in pursuit of freedom.
Dr. King recognized this spiritual heritage a century later, and its enduring power. Standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, concluding his most famous speech, he returned to the African American spiritual. His words, joining the music of his ancestors and predecessors, remain a challenge to all who hear:
“When we allow freedom to ring we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children will be able to join hands and sing, ‘Free at last! free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’” May this song never leave our lips or hearts until it is true; until all of God’s children are free.
I will be returning to the Holy Land, leading a group pilgrimage, November 25 – December 5, 2019. This is an 8-night trip, with accommodations in Tel Aviv, Galilee, and Jerusalem. We will visit and learn at sites such as: Jaffa, Caesarea, Mount Carmel, Megiddo, the Sea of Galilee, Migdal, and the major holy sites of Jerusalem and beyond.
If you are interested in joining this trip, contact Garry Hedges, who is coordinating the sign-up process. As usual, space is limited. A preliminary brochure can be downloaded below, with detailed itinerary and initial costs.
Please join me on this journey. It will be one of the greatest experiences of your life.
There is a long honored Zen story about a man riding a speeding horse. As horse and rider gallop dangerous close to a small group of travelers along the same road, a man nearly trampled calls out to the rider, “Where are you going in such a hurry?” The man on horseback desperately answers over his shoulder, “I don’t know! You will have to ask the horse!”
The state of affairs for that rider is exactly as it is for most of us. While in the saddle, we have no command over our direction or destination. “We are riding horses we cannot control,” Buddhist teacher Thích Nhất Hanh observed about this story.
But the truth of the matter is, there is little control to be had – over horses – over anything. It is a false notion to think that we can exert our will over our circumstances. Oh, one might manage things for a little while, “with a place for everything and everything in its place,” but places and things have a way of getting jostled.
The people you work with, or the people you work for, are going to be uncooperative. The systems you have put your confidence in – religious, social, political – will never act exactly as you wish. Your children, be they four or forty, won’t do what you tell them to do.
Your own body and emotions will rebel against you. The stock market, no matter how savvy your investment, will prove to have a mind of its own. On and on I could go: Every relationship, stage of life, challenge at work, decision, health diagnosis, or family crisis has the potential to become a bucking bronco, tossing you from the saddle.
Switching from land to sea – another tossing, turning, uncontrollable entity – it might be helpful to think of your world as a great ocean. Its ever-churning waves keep crashing against you and your vessel. If you are waiting for the waves to settle, thinking that will aid you in controlling life, you will die waiting. Sure, the sea will subside, falling as slick as glass from time to time, but the billows and winds will always return.
Thus, inner peace – call it acceptance, serenity, resilience, or some other synonym – is the stability achieved within, for only chaos reigns without. Inner peace is a sort of ballast, a centering weight that provides stability as one sails the sea. It keeps the ship afloat, balanced, riding the waves instead of being swamped by them.
Most everything you wish you could do something about is beyond your ability to do so. That’s okay. You can learn to live with it, go with it, and roll with the waves that are certain to come. For it is the wise man or woman who knows that control is an illusion; and it is the skilled sailor who understands that he or she cannot control the weather or the water. He or she can only learn to steady and sail the ship.
Photo by Jeremy Bishop