I recently attended a lecture at the Schomburg Center concerning Dr. King’s Forgotten Manifesto (New York Times, May 16, 2012), in which he argues for an executive order that would ban segregation in the same way the Emancipation Proclamation outlawed slavery. Civil Rights historian David Blight and Schomburg director Khalil Gibran Muhammad animatedly discussed the origins of this writing, as well as Dr. King’s dogged determination to hold President John F. Kennedy accountable to all Americans, declaring, “The time has come, Mr. President, to let those dawn-like rays of freedom, first glimpsed in 1863, fill the heavens with the noonday sunlight of complete human dignity.” Mr. Blight read excerpts of this impassioned, lyrical letter, which cited hundreds of legal precedents, including the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence and the Emancipation Proclamation. I had not known of this manifesto prior to the lecture; I was riveted.
Just three weeks ago, I rang in the new year by worshipping at the Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. It was not lost on me or my fellow Abyssinians the profound symbolism of this particular Watch Night service, marking the 150 year anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation taking effect. The proclamation became a symbol of hope for nearly 4 million slaves. Some historians and scholars view the proclamation to be one of the most important documents in our country’s history. And today, fifty years after Dr. King’s iconic – and, perhaps, prophetic – “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered in Washington, D.C., I watch with immeasurable pride as Barack Obama is sworn into office for a second time as POTUS. No, all is not right with the world, and there are countless examples of injustice, indignities and atrocities worldwide happening every minute of every day. Tonight, however, for a few moments, I just felt like acknowledging – and celebrating – what is truly an American achievement. We shall indeed overcome someday.
I have something to say.
I’ve always had something to say. I just didn’t know how to say it. “It” would get stuck in my throat, crouched behind my tonsils or rattle around between my teeth, pushing fervently against my lips – my mouth refusing to open. I felt I needed permission – some mysterious entity’s approval – to say “it.” Whatever “it” happened to be. To be me. To state “me’s” purpose. It seems utterly absurd in retrospect. Surely, I have inherent
permission to be me, by the simple fact that I exist. Don’t I? And yet, somehow…somehow I have always felt like a guest. A visitor wherever I was – inside my home, around my family, among my colleagues. I felt undeserving of thinking my own thoughts. My opinions didn’t matter. These things were never actually intimated to me, and I am unable to pinpoint the origin of these fantastic mistruths. “Only child” syndrome, perhaps? Abandonment issues from my widowed, single parent upbringing -who knows? And even when asked, nay, encouraged to speak, the words would not easily flow. Time after time my little vocal folds betrayed me. This is crayzeeeeeeeee! I am a singer. A poet. A reader. Prose LIVES inside me. Why won’t it come out?
Ultimately, the tragic consequence of this psychosomatic muteness – this inconvenient, embarrassing, perpetual state of “loss for words” – was that I eventually came to believe the lie. I indeed must have nothing to say. Cue insecurity and doubt. “…Places, please for low self-esteem….” And so it went.
I do not recall specifically how or when this ‘illness’ abated, but I’ve been a recovering psychological mute for several years now. It feels incredible to open my mouth and let words just tumble out. Sometimes clumsy and awkward like a newborn colt, finding its legs. At other times eloquent and charming, if I do say so myself. And I do. Say so, that is.
Today I did something different. Instead of attending services at my home church or singing a service somewhere for money, I decided to visit a neighborhood church (where several colleagues were singing for money!). Today was an exceptionally beautiful day in Manhattan. The sun was high and the wind was low. I walked to my destination, as it is not terribly far from my home – not by New York pedestrian standards anyway. I had no real expectations for the service, except that the music would be exquisite. And it was. My surprise, however, came during the sermon, which felt more like a homily – an easy, reflective conversation of sorts. Turns out, today is “Epiphany Sunday.” In all my many years of worshipping, and various singing engagements with virtually every western religious denomination, I have never managed to keep straight the myriad feasts, colors or celebrations taking place throughout the church calendar year. I was never meaning to be disrespectful, it’s just that they’re SO MANY! Well, sitting in the service as a mere congregant and not responsible for anything other than worshipping, I found it much easier to simply focus on the lesson and I had, well, yeah – I’m gonna say it – an epiphany. Simple yet simultaneously grand. An “aha” moment truly befitting the first Sunday of the new year. The Epiphany celebration remembers the three miracles that manifest the divinity of Christ. The name “Epiphany” comes from the Greek word Epiphania, and means “to show, make known, or reveal.” How wonderfully appropriate. What was it you ask, this grand epiphany? I will save that for another blog entry. The important thing is…I had one.