Last week, as I’m sure you know by now, President Barack Obama broke into song at the funeral of Clementa Pinckney, killed in the attack on a Charleston, S.C., church. It was Amazing Grace, a song with a significant history of its own.
MPR colleague Tesfa Wondemagegnehu today forwarded this essay from a friend he grew up with down South.
In a familiar scene to the struggle for black liberation, Clementa Pinckney, an African-American pillar of justice was laid to rest yesterday after falling prey to a white supremacist gunman’s hate. The assassination of this beloved pastor and state senator, along with eight other parishioners of his historic Emanuel AME Church, sent waves of shock through the hearts of the African-American community. The massacre was the culmination of a long string of incidents linked to race and anti-blackness which have left the black community feeling fatigued and terrorized.
Against a sea of purple robed clergy as a backdrop, President Barack Obama provided a moving eulogy to frame the work of Pinckney as well as provide context for these killings, as they echo a long sordid history of anti-black terrorism at the hands of whites. The black church has historically been the epicenter of the fight for civil rights. From camp meetings during slavery to the strategy meetings during the black liberation movement of the 1960s, the church has provided a place of solace for blacks in America. The sanctuary and refuge of the church has also been the site of anti-black violence throughout America’s long journey of racial tension. Arson and bombings robbed the black community of peace with the tragic killing of four little girls in Alabama, and that same spirit of hate set ablaze Emanuel AME Church in the form of bullets that snuffed out the lives of nine churchgoers.
In a chilling moment of Obama’s eulogy, he broke into song. His shaky voice lead the congregation in the singing of Amazing Grace. In an act of solidarity, the congregation began to sing along, filling the hallowed space of the church with sounds of faith, liberation, and hope. The song was especially moving in the context. A sitting President of the United States with brown skin lead a congregation of brown people in the singing of one of the most beloved songs of the African-American tradition. During this call and response, even if only for a moment, black people across the nation felt a tangible connection to the president, a symbol of America’s democracy, a democracy which so often fails us.
Amazing Grace has become an emblem of African-American faith. The hymn reinforces ideas of redemption, hope after suffering, and better days ahead. Though the song has been adopted as a spiritual reflection of the black church, it has complicated origins. The lyrics of Amazing Grace were penned by John Newton. After serving in the Royal Navy, he became involved in the Atlantic Slave trade. Newton, a man who did not grow up with a deep connection to religion, experienced a moment of enlightenment after his ship became embattled with a violent storm. In his moments of fear and uncertainty, he called out to God for mercy. Newton wrote the first verse of Amazing Grace while his boat was being repaired. John Newton’s life could also be a testimony to the redeeming narrative of the song. Though he never explicitly used the text to reference anti-slavery, Newton abandoned his ties to slavery and became an abolitionist.
Amazing Grace’s resonated with African-Americans who sought relief from earthly misery and found hope in themes of joyous deliverance. There is a common thread of hope after long suffering – white robes in glory after a life of dangers, toils, and snares. A song written by an agent of white supremacy has become an anthem for black congregations exercising faith and practicing a religion once used as a mechanism for controlling slaves. Despite those origins, that song has become a tool for healing the wounds of a community which still feels the weight of the heavy hand of white supremacy. The song acted as one of the pulses of the 1960s black liberation movement and Mahalia Jackson used it to employ protection for civil rights marchers. Amazing Grace, commonly sung at funerals held in the black church, has become an elegy for the dead and an anthem of comfort for the living.
Barack Obama’s eulogy of Clementa Pinckney made several references to perseverance and faith in things not seen. These principles embody the faith of the African-American church, an institution which has buoyed and bolstered a people who have endured oppression and hardship for generations. Obama framed the legacy of Pinckney as one of faith despite seeing his work fully realized due to his untimely death. Obama’s remarks evoked images of a weary Martin Luther King, Jr’s Mountaintop speech. King foreshadowed his own death by reminding his flock that he may not get to the Promised Land with them, but they will indeed see the Promised Land.
Obama described the fallen Charleston nine as people who work “quietly, kindly, and diligently.” The movement for black liberation is often characterized by these terms. African-Americans are often asked to be forgiving, accommodating, and apologetic in our quest for justice. The slain members of Emanuel AME Church were gunned down in the midst of their hospitality after welcoming the gunman into their space. But the site of the Charleston massacre also has roots in rebellion. Denmark Vesey, Emanuel’s founder, was executed after a foiled attempt to lead a slave rebellion. The church was burned to the ground, but was later rebuilt. The spirit of Emanuel, like so many other centers of black spirituality and liberation are not quietly resilient toothless lions. Instead, as Obama pointed out, they are phoenixes with valor forged by fire, rising from the ashes to continue the fight.
Obama’s words resided in themes of grace acting as an agent of healing. Grace cannot be bought, Grace is not earned. Grace is not merited. It’s not something we deserve. As we go forward with the fight for justice and the crusade to proclaim that black lives matter, we must remember those ideals of grace being possible even for those of us who seem undeserving. Obama expressed a sentiment that was prevalent in the reactions to the Charleston massacre. He described the pain that stems from the act occurring in a church. He spoke the names of the fallen and described them as “Good people. Decent people. God fearing people.” The Charleston act of terror has garnered so much attention and outpouring of love because the victims were cloaked in goodness. There is a certain level of respectability which allows us to see them as victims. We see them as people who didn’t deserve their fates and as people who deserve grace. However, grace is not linked to perfection and piety. We must remember others who have fallen. We must remember Walter Scott, a black man who was gunned down in Charleston by a white police officer. We must afford the same grace for Rekia Boyd, Michael Brown, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Freddie Gray, and countless others who a part of communities who seem to navigate life less gracefully. They also deserve our honor, our national outcries of support, and protection. Their families deserve healing.
Martin Luther King, Jr., even as he was clad in suits and operating as a shepherd of the church, marched for the poor and marginalized. America’s monument to liberty does not say, “Give me your good. Give me your decent. Give me your God fearing.” That towering figure in a New York harbor says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” As we stand with Charleston, as we call for infinitely amazing grace, we must also stretch our hands to those who society gives very little room to breathe. We must loosen the choke hold of injustice and give hope to those who seem undeserving. Ultimately, we are all undeserving. Grace is so powerful because it is not a reward. It is not the spoils of a war or indicative of any great deeds of one’s past. It’s rooted in our unworthiness. It’s limitless, far reaching, and it’s intended for everyone.
Brooklyn based George Arnett, a native of Memphis, Tennessee, studied music composition the Rudi E. Scheidt School of Music at the University of Memphis under the tutelage of notable composers Kamran Ince and John Baur. Centering on the African-American experience, George’s classical compositions consist of various settings of Negro spirituals for the concert stage and other contemporary works based on the literature of black Americans. George’s largest music work, “The Creaion: A Negro Sermon for Five Voices,” premiered at African-American Lectionary Forum on Culture, Worship, and Preaching at the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on Black Church Studies at Vanderbilt Divinity School. The work was inspired by the James Weldon Johnson poem The Creation from his work “God’s Trombones.” George eventually ventured into the literary spectrum and has written several short stories as well as a forthcoming novel “Let it All Change.”