When I was growing up in rural Minnesota, I craved more. I wanted to know more of this world, more of who’s in it, more of how I fit into it, more of how I could help others fit in. I remember my mother either won our bought us tickets to see Sweet Honey in the Rock perform at the College of St. Benedict, still in rural Minnesota, but in a college town outside of St. Cloud. It was probably my first concert in a concert hall. I can remember the night was dark, in must not have been during the summer. I was in awe of these amazing women of color and their songs. Their voices. The fact that they used their bodies for percussion and how low the woman singing bass could go. They did not sit properly with their knees together, as women are supposed to sit, but sat as if they each had a cello between her legs. Instead of the posture to make room for an instrument, the posture was to make each of them an instrument. They gave me my senior solo that was about the AIDS quilt which I sang to a surprised audience a few years later: “They unfolded your lives, one by one. They laid out your patchwork under the sun.” They helped me be political with my singing voice. I have loved them all these 25 years since.
A few weeks ago, I was able to see them share the stage with Cantus, our own a cappella superstars, at Orchestra Hall. I’d already seen Cantus with Chanticleer recently and was absolutely gobsmacked by the talent within that small and mighty group of men. Cantus, who has been in the news for bringing a bit more politics into their programming recently. Cantus, who rose even higher in my esteem because of this programming. With the members of Sweet Honey in the Rock (which includes an American Sign Language interpreter as a matter of course), Cantus brought us all along for an evening of meshing music and cultures and styles and rhythms. It was as if we were at a wedding and the two families who would be brought together by the union were starting to dance. They each showed who they are, and then they joined together and brought us with them on their musical journey of give and take, learning and growing.
One of the songs that always soothes my soul is “We Are…” from Sweet Honey’s 1996 album Sacred Ground. They sang it when they were on stage in Minneapolis and it reminded me of some of the themes I’ve talked about in this magazine. How this community is full of people who belong to each other. How what binds us together is a love, and the politics that surround that love. How we stand on the shoulders of giants and have our chosen family members, as well as how we pass on an inheritance to those who come after us in this community. There is a very real legitimacy that this community struggles to keep after seeming to have attained it in a few areas, but this song is a reminder about how it never hurts to validate ourselves and what we’re doing; that we exist and we do things, both simple and complex. The song starts very simply, “For each child that’s born a morning star rises and sings to the universe who we are.” And later, the refrain reminds us and then reiterates how “We are sisters of mercy, brothers of love, lovers of life and the builders of nations. We are seekers of truth, keepers of faith, makers of peace and the wisdom of ages. We are our grandmothers’ prayers. We are our grandfathers’ dreamings. We are the breath of our ancestors. We are the spirit of God.”
So, whether you take that song literally or figuratively, sacredly or secularly, we are the people who have inherited roles in this community and we also will be passing our roles on to the next. We are grandchildren and we will be grandparents. This community is a family and we bring our own to it as we bring them together with others at a wedding. By saying, “We do.”
We are. We do. We will be. Together.