Hope is a Verb, a Song Called “Anyhow”

Note: This is part of a series of short posts, in the lead-up to the election, from leaders reflecting on hope and/or resistance.

By Johari Jabir (right)

Hope is a verb, a form of action not based on feelings or what is seen in ordinary time. To hope is to advance a stubborn, aggressive optimism.  

On January 1, 1863, a large gathering of Black and white people assembled beneath a sprawling oak tree in Beaufort, South Carolina, to hear the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation. Standing on a platform behind military officers, dignitaries, and abolitionists was the nation’s first Black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers. After the proclamation was read, the regiment was presented with an American flag donated by a New York congregation. All of the ceremony and pageantry had gone along as planned, until one speaker’s comments were interrupted by an elderly Black man who stood to sing,  

My country tis of thee

Sweet land of liberty

Of thee I sing.

Truth be told, even as the man lifted his voice, he was singing of a country that was not yet his. The war was not completely over and plans to establish democratic institutions that would support the newly freed population were, at best weak. Perhaps, this Black elder, who was born into slavery and lived to witness its’ legal end, sang with the hope that America could be his country. Many of us across lines of difference occupy the space of hope embodied in the singing of this Black elder; we dream, we march, we hope, and we sing of a country that can be a place “where everybody is somebody,” to invoke the creed of Rev. James Cleveland’s Gospel Music Workshop of America.

Singing, specifically the sorrow song in the Black experience is a perpetual flame of “hope–a faith in the ultimate justice of things,” to quote the esteemed Black scholar W.E.B. Du Bois. These songs are available to us as a source of political and spiritual hope in an election season like no other. For those of us tempted to lose hope by the convergence of COVID, anti-Black violence, and fascism, remember these words by the Apostle Paul, “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but no forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (II Corinthians 4:8-9). The lyrics to one sorrow song bears this out,

You may buke me

You may scorn me

You may scandalize my name

But at the cross I bow

I’m on my way to heaven anyhow

A new song of hope is always being written.

You may try to deceive us with your cunning words, but we are voting anyhow.

You may hide behind your money driven lies, but we are voting anyhow.

We are going to the polls, anyhow.

The ballot is now the bullet.

We hope and vote in radical solidarity with those the empire tries to suppress. For we know this; only the people at the bottom can shine God’s light on the darkness of the city on a hill.  

Johari Jabir is an artist, scholar, and contemplative. A native of St. Louis, Missouri, Johari is director of music at St. George & St. Matthias Episcopal Church in Chicago, IL, and he teaches in the department of Black Studies at the. University of Illinois Chicago. His first book, Conjuring Freedom: Music and Masculinity in the Gospel Army of the Civil War (Ohio State University Press, 2017),is a cultural history of the nation’s first Black regiment, the 1st South Carolina Volunteers.

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