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The Music of the Oppressed

Samuel Freedman . . .

Nearing 40 and nearly broke, ousted from his last job as an English professor, a folklore buff named Robert Winslow Gordon set out in the spring of 1926 from his temporary home on the Georgia seacoast, lugging a hand-cranked cylinder recorder and searching for songs in the nearby black hamlets.

One particular day, Mr. Gordon captured the sound of someone identified only as H. Wylie, singing a lilting, swaying spiritual in the key of A. The lyrics told of people in despair and in trouble, calling on heaven for help and beseeching God in the refrain, “Come by here.”

They asked God to walk with them and see the oppression, the racism, the white-robed killers and the burning crosses. They didn’t write to their congressman, they didn’t sign petitions, they didn’t send a telegram to Calvin Coolidge, they knew who cared about them and who didn’t.

I’ve been posting diaries on the websites of the resistance since 2005 and have never featured this controversial spiritual in a diary before. It’s time to feature it, it’s time, because there’s too much pain in this world and more on the way, because someone’s crying in Gaza, Lord; because someone’s crying in Syria, Lord; because someone’s crying in Kandahar, Lord; because too many leaders of the People of the Book have forgotten its message of peace and keep staining the birthplace of civilization with the blood of the innocent.

Obama. Netanyahu. Ahmadinejad. Assad. The CIA. The Mossad. The Taliban. Al-Qaeda and Hamas and Hezbollah. Come by and see their handiwork, Lord, come by and see it. I’ve seen enough corpses and don’t want to see any more. I’ve had my fill of the self-righteousness of high and mighty killers. Oppression is oppression and persecution is persecution. That was the harsh reality for the ancient Israelites in Egypt, for African Americans across the South; for Muslims in Gaza, for every victim of dominant power brutality in every age. There is no justification for it, there never has been and never will be.

Maybe someday, the People of the Book will finally understand the wisdom in it. Maybe someday, the solemn words of the Prince of Peace will finally be heard . . .

Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

And the killing will stop.

Someone is praying for that, Lord. This diary is a prayer, singing Kumbaya is a prayer, seeking peace is a prayer. I hope you can hear them above the frantic screeching of conservatives casting stones at all the heretics who won’t worship the Almighty Dollar. I hope you hear these prayers above the relentless mockery of the cynics . . .

In the civil rights era, “Come By Here” was a call to action. In the cynical present, essentially the same song has become a disparagement of action. “If you say someone’s engaged in ‘kumbaya,’ you’re saying that person isn’t serious,” said Thomas S. De Luca, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York who studies political rhetoric. “That accusation is designed to disempower someone who’s trying to do something.”

“Serious” people aren’t the solution, they’re the problem. “Serious” people have been disempowering idealists ever since the first king crowned himself in Sumer, oppressed everyone in sight, and wrote the pages of his reign in blood. The proud heirs of seriousness are now seriously engaged in destroying the entire planet with their serious policies.

I hope it’s not too late for one more prayer . . .

Deliver us from the “serious” people, Lord.




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