an ode to Selma and Nina Simone

I listened to this song by Nina Simone yesterday: I wish knew how it would feel to be free.

My profoundly beautiful friend told me that this was getting her through a hard day or two in the office. I had heard it before, but as I listened to it alone a little later on I heard it as if for the first time, tears filling my eyes as the weight of the words washed over me through the melody’s indomitable rise and fall.

I imagined it must have been a spiritual, written during times of slavery. Some quick googling showed that it was actually written in the 60s, but that it indeed served as an anthem for the civil-rights movement. As I listened over and over (as I am prone to do when I latch onto a good thing..) I found it surprising just how much it moved me, how profoundly, well, spiritual, it was, how close it made me feel to the God I know and love in my core. Or not surprising at all, I guess. Songs, ‘dangerous songs’ as Walter Brueggemann calls them, borne from the furnace of the deepest suffering; songs that speak of a wild hope despite all that works to suppress it – no surprise at all, I guess, that flowers that blossom by the grace of God and the strength of the human-meets –Divine Spirit in the land marked by suffering are the most astoundingly beautiful.

I wish I knew how it would feel to be free.

I wish you could know what it means to be me; then you’d see and agree that every man should be free.

Isn’t this the cry of all of our hearts? I’m grateful for the piercing voice of truth that those in the teeth of all the light and dark of the civil rights movement, in the depth of their suffering and great hope were able to feel and express in such a way – giving voice to the deepest, often numbed desires of all of our hearts. Suffering has a strange way of forging for us a path towards a more hopeful imagination again, something which is impossible as we sit, falsely satiated and saturated with comfort and safety to the point of numbness.

How we need these reminders. How we all long to be free.

Somehow, though, through the melody, I get the sense we are all able to glimpse freedom, if only for a moment, and know that this is what we are made for. Hold fast, the melody seems to say. Walter Brueggemann says this:

As the civil rights movement of the 1960s and ‘70s understood, singing is a way to keep your nerve. If you think about the Song of Miriam or those dangerous songs (many of which are in the mouths of women) we are invited to join that kind of singing which is a refusal to accept the dominant definitions of reality…an insistence that there is another way to experience the world and there is another way to act in the world.

‘Be careful with that stuff kid, it’s strong for a first timer….’ my friend said as I told her how the song had moved me. How right she is. Is there anything more subversive, more jaw-dropping, more core-shaking than this? That right in the teeth of death, in the very furnace of suffering, therein lie the seeds for true redemption, for beauty, for another Way marked by freedom, by hopeful imagination. A way so other to the numbness, scepticism and fear which lies at the heart of injustice. And how radically wonderful that a true expression of longing for freedom is not just for me, but for you too. For your freedom is bound up in mine, my sister, my brother.

I felt my own numbness peeling away as I listened, over and over, my whole body thrumming with the melody.

Perhaps not by chance, I saw Selma last weekend and it blew my little mind (if you haven´t yet seen it and can, please do!) I have been wanting to write about it ever since and and havent had the chance, but I feel that the lines which still ring in my ears, the images seared still at the forefront of my vision and the tears still hot on my cheeks – they mark the things which have resonated more deeply than I can know even now. Suffice to say the story made me feel like this song made me feel.

From start to finish we found ourselves astounded, humbled, shaken, awakened to a more hopeful imagination – right from what looked like the heart of the valley of death.

I remember the game-changing moment of Dr. King kneeling in prayer before marching headlong into their violent opposition. I remember the thousands behind him following suit, some in prayer, some uncertain, but all strangely led to follow a leader-on-his-knees. I remember how Dr. King stood up and walked back through the crowd, away from the confrontation. A prophet so in tune with the leadings of the very spirit of God that he was prepared to do the unthinkable.
I remember Dr. King showing up at the morgue, weeping with the grandfather of a gentle boy murdered by the state-sanctioned police for the crime of peacefully marching for freedom. How he came alongside, stood with only tears for words for a moment before saying: ´God was the first to cry´.

I remember how he raised his voice at times and how he stood in silence at others. How with him there was no set in stone strategy, just obedience to the spirit of God. How I felt humbled that there is no ´right way´ to fight against injustice – it is not ´better´ to shout or to quietly work for incremental change. Both are needed, and none of us are tied to any one way – only a Third Way out in the fields beyond the structures which would have us believe otherwise. Change can only come from the Vine. We can be angry, but also be hopeful. We must be. This is the way of the Vine, as Dr. King and the prophets and prophetesses before, with and after him know so well.

The Vine – the author of freedom. The artist of hopeful imagination. The one whose spirit breathes through the dangerous melodies which enable us to hold our nerve. Melodies which are the usherers-in of redemptive change and freedom.

I wish you could know what it means to be me; then you’d see and agree that every man should be free.

Wherever you find yourself today, please know this. You were made to be free, and so is your neighbour – here and around the world. You, she, and I were made to sing the glorious song which reminds us and a weary world to hold fast. Freedom is winning. Know that you are part of a melody more grand, more hopeful, more subversively wonderful than our limited hearts could ever begin to dream of. But we can be a part of it. We are a part of this greater song, if we will be awake to it.

One of my favourite things that Dr. King ever said was that the arc of history is long, but it bends towards justice. In my imagining, the arc has a melody, and I think it sounds something like Nina Simone.

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3 thoughts on “an ode to Selma and Nina Simone

  1. You gift us with such an important consideration. Thank you for helping all of us step into the figurative shoes of another and realize that we are all one, and freedom is for all. Injustice is overcome, albeit sometimes much too slowly, by sharing words such as these. Thank you.

    • Thanks so much for your words Lisa. My heart skipped a beat when I read your last sentence – because it’s my heart’s hope that change can come from simply showing up and sharing our truth. Just had a look over at your incredible story too – wow. We all need some of the beautiful insight which you have, I think!

  2. Beautiful.

    Beautiful song. Beautiful writing. Beautiful writer.

    Reading your words always allows me (or forces me) to carve out a moment in my day for quiet and reflection and humanity, and I am grateful for it.

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