In Roget’s Thesaurus there are some 120 synonyms for blackness, and at least 60 of them are offensive. Such words as “blot,” “soot,” “grim,” “devil,” and “foul.”
The sentence rang out across the expanse of Christ Church on Broadway, each word falling and bouncing back, with a sure and steady weight, like marbles across the church’s stone aisles.
And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as “purity,” “cleanliness,” “chastity,” and “innocence.”
Toward the back, where it was standing room only, families murmured a soft “yes,” a few letting soft moans escape, pain and injustice rattling within them as the text continued.
A white lie is better than a black lie.
Near the front of the room, a few students shifted, their instruments still tight in their hands.
The most degenerate member of a family is the “black sheep.”
A pin could have dropped in the church. Only the clicks of cameras and intermittent footsteps were audible.
But the words that carried the sentiment — first written and made famous by the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., in his 1967 address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference — were not delivered in a fire-and-brimstone lecture to an expectant crowd.
Instead, they came from Robert Davis, a young man with a newly emboldened voice, at the sixth annual celebration honoring the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. organized by the not-for-profit school for city kids Music Haven and the steel band at St. Luke’s Church, held on the official holiday marking the civil rights leader’s birth.
A collaborative effort that has outgrown its original home in Saint Luke’s church, the concert — which drew over 400 New Haveners Monday afternoon — is always dedicated to the words and message of King. This year, it embraced King’s themes of self-love, freedom fighting, and emotional emancipation at a time of particular urgency, as a new generation of civil rights marchers takes to the streets under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“The words and legacy of Dr. King can help us create a create a better and a safer future,” said Community Healing Network Founder Enola Aird (pictured), who worked with students Jordan Brown and Robert Davis from Music Haven and Schae Snead and Logan Foreman of St. Luke’s Steel Band to prepare the day’s readings, excerpts from King’s 1967 “Where Do We Go From Here?”
“But to get the answers we need, we need to go beyond the Dr. King we know best … we need to get to know the Dr. King I call the psychological freedom fighter. We need to get to know him as well as, and maybe even better than, Dr. King the dreamer.”
She asserted that King was a stricter, more fiery advocate whom citizens need to channel today, a time when “we may cry out ‘black lives matter.’ For too many people across this country and around the world, black lives do not matter as much as white lives do.”
As they and Davis found a new voice in King’s words — a rich, round one, confident as it bounded to the back of the church — so too did the day’s musical selections, like Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song,” which asks :“Won’t you help to sing / these songs of freedom?” Or Marley’s seminal “Get Up, Stand Up,” performed once by Music Haven’s Harmony in Action orchestra and some of its newest students, studying “Music 101” under Colin Benn and David Mills, and a second time by the St. Luke’s PANstars, conducted by St. Luke’s Musical and Steel Band Director Kenneth Joseph.
In the piece, Marley’s lyrics flew exuberantly through the air, a whir of hummingbirds straight from the mouths of young, hopeful students crowded around the microphone. In the second, the audience had a chance to reflect, the lyrics themselves replaced with a wholly instrumental version.
King’s own words resonated and quaked through several of the songs selected for this year’s performance. With one answer to where do we go from here? — that “we must massively assert our dignity and worth. We must stand up amid a system that still oppresses us and develop an unassailable and majestic sense of values” — the Haven String Quartet and St. Luke’s Steel Band rendition of “Glory” (in video) came to life. Steel drum players Bryce Collins and Lisa Yarbor faithfully sang out: “That’s why we walk through Ferguson with our hands up / When it go down we woman and man up / They say, ‘Stay down,’ and we stand up / Shots, we on the ground, the camera panned up / King pointed to the mountain top and we ran up.”
So did the concert’s finale, a version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that had every member of the audience joining in, rising to their feet for an energetic finish to the 80-minute program.
As Joseph swung his arms to the time signature, celebrating every lyric, every downbeat, every chord, the audience belted, “Let us march on till victory is won,” a constellation of close to 80 musicians before them. Everyone swayed gently to the music, reinvigorated, and ready to bring a brighter, bolder message into the world.