People Get Ready: Advent With Curtis Mayfield I
N.B.: I had this idea last spring, actually, and worked through some ideas. I thought I’d offer these Advent thoughts here, just to see if and how people respond.
We people who are darker than blue
Are we gonna stand around this town
And let what others say come true?
We’re just good for nothing they all figure
A boyish, grown up, shiftless jigger
Now we can’t hardly stand for that
Or is that really where it’s at?
We people who are darker than blue – “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, lyrics by Curtis Mayfield
Come to earth to taste our sadness; – “Come, Thou Long Expected Jesus”, lyrics by Charles Wesley
By the rivers of Babylon—
there we sat down and there we wept
when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
asked us for songs,
and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!’
How could we sing the Lord’s song
in a foreign land? – Psalm 137:1-4
If Bob Dylan and Joan Baez made white folk feel good about themselves in the midst of the Civil Rights struggles, Curtis Mayfield, both with his group The Impressions as well as a solo artist, gave voice not only to the hopes of a people; he offered African-Americans the simple message that they were a great people, deserving of legal and social equality. His power as a musician is best exemplified by the fact that his songs were used as soundtracks both by Martin Luther King and the Black Pride/Black Power movements. Here is a man who really could speak for his people through song.
As the Civil Rights struggle withered and the Black Power movement was choked to death by official conspiracies, however, African-American urban life took on darker tones. No longer confident they could assert their full humanity and be accepted, the realities of official neglect and a variety of social pathologies created conditions in which hopes and dreams died at the end of needles or disappeared up people’s noses. This, too, brought Mayfield’s prophetic witness to life. Most clearly in the soundtrack to the blacksploitation film Superfly but through much of his work in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, he refused to remain silent while urban communities were ravaged by drugs, poverty, crime, and neglect. The always-present shadow of the criminalization of black life – something the United States has done well even before we were an independent country – left fewer and fewer options or free spaces for action.
That didn’t hinder Mayfield, however. As courageous as he was gifted, he preached through song, offering the picture of a life that had become the epitome of racist fears and bigoted stereotypes. In “We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, he held a mirror up to life in African-American urban communities and asked a simple question: Is this who we want to be? Really?
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is the first season of the Christian year. We all seem to know it’s our time to get ourselves ready for Christmas. Too often, we slide quickly through Advent, ignoring our need for real preparation because Christmas, now no longer solely a religious holiday, has come to embrace much of our national life from early November through the beginning of the New Year. We think preparation means decorating our houses and churches. We prepare cookies and pies. Moving through crowds at large stores and shopping malls as we prepare to buy-buy-buy, we seem grateful only that the stores are open later so we can shop. Preparing for the birth of the Son of God is something toward which we nod on Sundays; the rest of the time we’re preparing for the stockings and wrapped packages and parties and relatives we just saw on Thanksgiving.
Curtis Mayfield, however, offers a different vision of the meaning of preparation. Before we can even get ourselves ready, we need to be clear about why preparation is necessary. It is never easy to admit just how lost we are, how in need of saving from our own blindness, our missplaced sense of self-sufficiency, and the need for our communities to see just how broken they are. If we are to bow down before the Christ-babe, however, we must see who we are. It’s true that God knows the truth, that little baby understands us better than we do ourselves. Yet if that remains the case, how is it possible to receive the blessing that lies cooing in rags in a cattle’s trough?
“We The People Who Are Darker Than Blue”, like Psalm 137, expresses anger. Unlike Psalm 137, however, this song doesn’t misplace the anger on some Other. Mayfield takes the measure of his people and asks a simple question: Do we want to become someone else’s worst nightmare? African-American communities seemed unable to sing their songs in this foreign homeland of theirs. Not that there weren’t artists like James Brown and George Clinton and Miles Davis and Herbie Hancock who still told their tales. Their musical witness was washed away in the promise of drugs and violence and sex that too much became the soundtrack of urban life in the 1970’s. Mayfield, already present when the dreams and hopes and pride and power seemed poised to tell a different story was now demanding that people see who they were. Only then could they be clear about what was needed.
The music of Curtis Mayfield was always a music for his people. Precisely because of that specificity, however, others, too, can hear in his words and sounds, his unique guitar playing and clear falsetto voice, the demand we be honest with ourselves. How can we make ourselves ready for freedom, for power, for equality when we are a sinful, broken people? The brokenness of our affluent white communities is no less real than that of others. The hurt, the sin, and the anger is as much a part of working class white folk as it is urban African-American communities. Violence as an expression not only of social pathology but of that fundamental brokenness we call sin is ubiquitous; it knows no color line, no socioeconomic class, no neighborhood boundaries. Until and unless we are able to hear in Mayfield’s song our own song, we aren’t ready even to get ready.
By voicing this prophetic call to repentance, however, Curtis Mayfield offers all our different communities the opportunity for real preparation. When we acknowledge just how broken, just how hurting, just how much in need of salvation we are, then Advent can really begin. First, however, we have to say yes when Mayfield asks “Now we can’t hardly stand for that/Or is that really where it’s at?”.