Thursday, April 7, 2011

We Will March

Preached on Pride Sunday June 24, 2007

            How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?

            The lament of exiles…

            After the Babylonians conquered Judah, they drove many of the Jews into exile, forcing them to go into Babylon, to assimilate them. This, however, did not work. Perhaps the Jews were too resilient and stubborn to abandon their ways, or perhaps they were never fully accepted into mainstream Babylonian life, marginalized because they were different. Thus they formed a potent subculture that preserved their faith and national identity.
            Because the Jews were different, the Babylonians often made fun of them, their culture, and their “wild beliefs” about one, true God. They demanded that the Jews sing them songs, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion,” they said, laughing.
            And the Jews hung their lyres on the Willows there in Babylon, unable to sing a song of home in a foreign land. They felt crushed, totally devastated, and they thought it would be better to kill a newborn child than to raise the little ones in captivity.
            But, it is obvious that these Jews found some way to give voice to their despair because of the very existence of Psalm 137, often titled A Hymn of the Exiles in Babylon.
            This need to sing in the face of adversity seems to be as old as human community. Wherever you find people trying to oppress the human spirit, you’ll find songs: songs of despair, songs of hope, songs of endurance, and songs of joy and celebration.
            Frederick Douglas, a former slave and abolitionist, an author, an orator, an editor and statesman wrote about slave songs in his autobiographical Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, 1845:
            While on their way (to work), the slaves would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy or the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out, if not in the word, in the sound; and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone. This they would sing, as a chorus, to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves. I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.

            Many of the slave songs vocalized dreams of freedom and escape and became the basis for many of the African-American spirituals that we commonly sing today. Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was composed by one-time slave of the Choctaw Indians, Wallis Willis, in the old Indian Territory in 1862. Some latter day scholars have claimed that this song and another composed by Willis, Steal Away Jesus, had some hidden lyrics referring to the Underground Railroad.
            Sometimes the work songs and field hollers were simply tools for survival. In his book Wake up Dead Man, folklorist Bruce Jackson wrote:
            The large plantations in the U.S. South were based on West African agricultural models and, with one major difference, the black slaves used work songs in the plantations exactly as they had used them before they had been taken prisoner and sold to the white men. The difference was this: in Africa the songs were used to time body movements and to give poetic voice to things of interest because people wanted to do their work that way; in the plantations there was added a component of survival. If a man were singled out as working too slowly, he would often be brutally punished. The songs kept everyone together, so no one could be singled out as working more slowly than everyone else.
            After the end of the Civil War, this heritage of singing carried on in the voices of sharecroppers, railroad workers, and prison chain gangs.
            Listening to the rare recordings of these songs, one will find the same musical and vocal expressions that distinguish Ragtime, Jazz, and Blues, which have, in turn, had a tremendous influence on Rock and Roll, Hip Hop, and other forms of popular music. The echoes of oppressed peoples resonate throughout our culture in countless ways through many obvious and subtle applications.
            Perhaps a lesser-known by-product of the old African slave songs can be found in the tradition of military cadence, also known as Jody calls. Jody is the guy who stays home while you go to war. He dates your girlfriend, drives your car, and kicks your dog. Many laments and threats are sung about ol’ Jody.
            Though many cadences are military specific and are often vulgar and violent, the most endearing ones echo the sentiments of the slave songs: the drudgery of mundane work, the desire to go home, and the dream of release, even a release through death.
They also sing about living under the scrutiny of a tough task master (in the case of Jody calls, a drill sergeant) and the resentment and fear he often inspires.
A typical cadence goes like this:

I don’t know why I left
But I know I’ve done my best
And it won’t be long
‘Til I get back home

Got a letter in the mail
Go to war or go to jail

Sat me down in a barber’s chair
Spun me around, I had no hair

Used to drive a Cadillac
Now I pack it on my back

Used to ride in a limousine
Now I’m wearing Army green

Dress it right and cover down
Forty inches all around

Nine to the front and six to the rear
That’s the way we do it hear

Used to date a beauty queen
Now I carry an M-16

Ain’t no use in looking down
Ain’t no discharge on the ground
Ain’t no use in going back
Jody’s got your Cadillac

Ain’t no use in calling home
Jody’s got your girl and gone

Ain’t no use in feeling blue
Jody’s got your sister too

Don’t you kick my dog around
Don’t you kick my dog around

And it won’t be long
‘Til I get back home

It is hard for me to imagine Army life without Jody calls. In fact, the marching and running cadences that punctuate daily life in all four branches of the military are among the very few things I miss about my experience in uniformed service. The Jodies built unit cohesion and inspired a high degree of esprit de corps, attributes of a highly effective organization.
Jody calls also facilitate survival, especially in unit runs. They are used to help the soldiers regulate their breathing and to keep their minds off the pain of strenuous effort, a very practical approach to developing an effective regimen of aerobic exercise: if you can’t talk while running you have stepped into anaerobic exercise, depleting of much-needed oxygen. The rhythm keeps the group moving as a single unit, adding a resounding thud as numerous feet hit the ground simultaneously instead of the cacophony of random footfalls.
The voices in unison create a common identity in the see-saw of call and response, which actually mimics the age-old preaching styles of many African-American churches.
One of my most moving experiences in the Army happened the day my unit, the 197th Infantry Brigade (MS), was first alerted about being deployed in support of Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm. We were all scared and worried about the future, and we knew we were going to a foreign land, into a sort of exile, facing a tedious and frightening future with the knowledge that there was a good chance that not all of us would return alive.
We marched to the brigade parade field to receive the official word from our commander, and while we marched we sang our hearts out, all of our voices raised with gusto. I have rarely felt such a high degree of comradery. We all knew that our futures were wound up in each other and that our individual survival depended on our collective effectiveness. We were more than a unit; we were a community of soldiers, and I couldn’t see how we could be defeated because of how we shouted and sang with one loud and thunderous voice so sincere it brought tears to my eyes. Well, not only to my eyes. Many of us were crying on that short march that day: afraid, worried, hopeful, and thankful.
Our first sergeant started singing an old African-American spiritual: A-Amen, A-Amen, A-A-Men, Amen, Amen.
Between Amens the leader chants lines of encouragement:
(sing it louder now)
(praise the Lord now)
(Sing it soft now)
(Praise the Lord now)
            We all knew that this was more than a Jody call; it was a prayer, a prayer as sincere as any hymn sung in church. I know that I felt the Holy Spirit swelling in my heart that day, and I saw it in others too.
And because of this experience, I can see the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity, a strength that defies oppression and fear. So, I am thankful for the forebears who cried their despair in work songs, for those who prayed for deliverance and strength in field hollers, and for the ones who sang for freedom while imprisoned and working hard labor in those chain gangs. Because of them we have a whole heritage of resilience.
So, I would be negligent if I failed to mention the endurance of Oklahoma’s glbt community.
We have endured soaring triumph and crushing defeat in the last several years. We won the right to fly our pride banners on the light poles up and down Classen Boulevard. We saw the U.S. Supreme Court strike down sodomy laws aimed specifically at homosexuals, and we saw the state of Massachusetts legalize same-sex marriage and then, recently, uphold it when their legislature voted against a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage. We have seen other states open their laws up to civil unions and anti-harassment policies to protect glbt people from discrimination in the workplace and housing accommodations.
On the flip side, we have seen a fervent and organized response from the religious right, which, unfortunately, has chosen to foment hatred and intolerance toward glbt people. Here in Oklahoma, we have borne the brunt of this movement toward repression, and we have been tempted to knuckle under the pressure, to move to other states, to silence our voices, and creep back into the closet. We saw the passage of State Question 711 to ban same-sex marriage and to deny the “benefits of marriage” for gay and lesbian couples. We have seen the Oklahoma State Legislature declare glbt people unfit for parenthood after the passage of laws that do not recognize legal adoptions of children in households headed by gay and lesbian couples. We have also seen children’s books depicting gay and lesbian households and/or characters treated as nothing better than obscene. Yes, we have been singing the blues in this red state, and we have felt like exiles in our own homeland.
Yet, we have persevered. We saw the re-election of Jim Roth and then his appointment to the Oklahoma Corporation Commission. We saw the election of Al McAffrey to the Oklahoma State Legislature as a representative from House District 88. We have seen the emergence of the Diversity Business Association and have begun to taste the fruits of economic leverage in their assistance with our Pride Festival and their various community projects. The Cimarron Alliance Foundation brought a traveling exhibit of the Holocaust Museum to Oklahoma City to educate the public about the costs of intolerance and persecution, and we had a massively successful community summit meeting earlier this spring, a meeting that brought together community activists and organizations for the purpose of building cohesion through education.
All right, you might say these things weren’t accomplished because our community gathered together to sing, but this resilience taps the same wellspring of the human spirit that oppressed and repressed peoples have tapped into for ages and ages. It is more than optimism; faith keeps the hope alive, the dream for freedom and equality for all peoples.
And today, we will march! We will gather as a community of diversity, and we will rejoice in our identities. This year is the twentieth anniversary of the LGBT Pride Parade. We will dance in the street, we will sing songs, and we will tell the world that we have not gone away.
 We’re still here!
And why is that?
Because you cannot silence the human spirit. Like Jesus said, “I tell you, if these were silent, the very stones would cry out.”

Pride Jody

I sure am glad I came out
Now its time to sing and shout

Shout a note for those who cry
Shout a prayer for those who died

Shout a song for those who toil
In the struggle for freedom

Freedom, I say Freedom
Freedom, I say Freedom

Hold your head and hold it high
People Pride is marching by

We don’t want superiority
We want Equality

And it won’t be long
‘Til I sing a Victory song

Freedom, I say Freedom
Freedom, I say Freedom

And it won’t be long
‘Til I sing a Victory song

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