Singing for Freedom
Today, the congregation will be singing hymns from our hymnals which are particularly precious to us as Unitarian Universalists. But today, being the last Sunday in February, is also part of Black History Month.
Now, there’s very good reason for an entire month of the year to be devoted to lifting up, and learning about black history, or African American history. This is because, for most of our history, most Americans never heard, and never knew anything about African American history.
And this is because African Americans weren’t free. [You can add that they weren’t free because they were enslaved, or that they weren’t free because of slavery. More on this at the end of my post.] They weren’t free to share the stories of their lives. They weren’t free to talk about their hopes and dreams. And most of all, they hoped for, and dreamed of freedom.
If they spoke about their dreams of freedom, they had to do it carefully and secretly. They communicated, often, in code; in secret messages. And one way they did this was through songs and the words in those songs. They would teach the songs to one another to convey the secret messages.
And one of those songs, an African American folk song, is in the pages of our grey hymnal, Singing the Living Tradition: # 116: “I’m on My Way.” We’re going to sing it. So open your hymnals.
Now, this is a “call and response” type folk song, meaning that one voice calls out a simple line and the others repeat it in response. For the first verse, I’ll be the caller and you all respond. Notice that the last line we sing all together. For the rest of the verses, we’ll have those of you on the left sing the call line, and those on the right sing the response.
And we’ll sing this song. We’ll sing it with meaning. We’ll sing it in honor of the historical roots from which it came.
We’ll sing it in celebration of Black History Month and we’ll sing it in the spirit of freedom, for even now African Americans still aren’t truly, fully free.
You’ll need to alert your musician to your plans for singing this song, so you can get a starting pitch and accompaniment. The song lends itself well to unaccompanied singing, and you can add clapping for those who aren’t holding hymnals.
Regarding whether to mention slavery or not, you’ll need to discern thoughtfully about how explicit to be about it. Very young children have perhaps heard the word slavery, but don’t know what it means. I mainly erred on the side of leaving slavery as a concept and a word only heavily implied. This was meant intentionally, so that more mature listeners could “hear between the lines” of my words, and children might be intrigued as to why African Americans weren’t free. This would theoretically lead to some of them raising questions about the reflection at a later time with their parents, hopefully in a setting where parents could respond appropriately and authentically to their children’s curiosity.
Our congregations are places meant to hold, consider, and learn about difficult topics. However, in the context of a short Reflection for All Ages, there is not ample time to hear the breadth of children’s questions and “unpack” everything that slavery is, and why it concerns us as Unitarian Universalists.