Glide Memorial Church, San Francisco.
One synonym for hope is optimism, which can be defined as a “disposition or tendency to look on the more favorable side of events or conditions and to expect the most favorable outcome.” (Dictionary.com version 126.96.36.199)
Black culture gives rise to a kind of optimism that defies the story of black life since 1619. My research focused on the role of ritual expressiveness in Black cultural life. I proposed that this ritual expressiveness is rooted in African Diasporic cosmologies that carried over into the so-called New World, and provided a “way out of no way,” giving rise to a unique, and often misunderstood optimism for African diasporic folks. Furthermore, these ways of being could and have provided healing beyond the Black communities in which they are grounded.
In this reflection piece, I want to illustrate these points by way of an incident that occurred in Montgomery, Alabama among an ethnically diverse group of travelers.
In my work, a guiding image has been the gospel song, How I Got Ovah.” This song, like so many others coming from the African Diaspora, has an uplifting and restorative quality. It ponders—by suggestion—the mystery of getting over in spite of slavery and subsequent anti-Black sentiment and treatment in the African diaspora. Implicit in the title is both the declaration that getting over occurred but also the question of how the author did it. In today’s lexicon, the word most commonly used to refer to the phenomenon of “getting over” is resilience.
Perhaps my difficulty with the word stems from my sense that resilience is most often used to characterize an individual quality or capacity. I’m more interested in perhaps what might be called “cultural resilience.”
Isoke Femi is a maven of transformative learning and a coordinator for the Emerging Leaders Program at Glide Memorial Church and Foundation in San Francisco. She brings the lens of Imaginal Psychology and Spirituality to the realm of cultural transformation and racial healing. She is an imaginal practitioner, master facilitator and founder of Soul Matters—an elder of the movement with more than 30 years of experience in the work of transformation. She is co-founder of the Todos Alliance Building Institute and co-author of No Boundaries: A Manual for Unlearning Oppression and Building Multicultural Alliances.
I imagine that Black people who share the spiritual heritage of the songwriter understand not only the question, but the answer to which it points. I suspect there are a number of explanations for how Black folks in the U.S. and other parts of the diaspora made it through, but in this piece I want to focus on the spiritual roots of this getting over of which Ms. Ward speaks in her gospel song.
“How I got ovah; how I got ovah; you know my soul looks back and wonders, how I got ovah.”
Like so much Black music, this song evokes the experience of which it speaks, “gettin’ ovah” or overcoming.
First, it is a declaration of already having accomplished the act of getting over. It states quite certainly that the getting over has occurred. In African American context, performance of the song, as well as the community’s engagement with it, conjures the experience of getting over, and it is in this sense that I want to speak about hope—as the power to get ovah or overcome. From this perspective, I do not speak of a one-and-done, as in winning a race, or even as in overturning the structures of domination. To be sure, such a goal as dismantling oppressive structures is always in some way the aim of the subjugated.
Overcoming can be a centuries-long journey into the heart of darkness while still holding on to the sense that something else is there with you, loving you and buoying you.
But to limit overcoming to such a singular, even if lofty, ideal, is to miss something very important about a way of being. And so here I use the word “overcome” in reference to a way of being. It is a way of being that allows a people to remember. Overcoming, in this context, is conceived as a means by which a people learn to remember who, and what, they are in truth as opposed to who the other tells them they are. This overcoming must be performed repeatedly, until the art of remembering is held in the blood, the sinew, in the connective tissue of the collective.
Overcoming in this context refers to the repeated act of resisting soul loss, or loss of vitality and authenticity. In the case of African Americans in the U.S., soul loss would be the inevitable result of collective scapegoating over the course of several centuries had it not been for the overcoming practices of African-derived spirituality, finely tuned over the centuries. These practices have served as antidote to the suppression of the impact of trauma.
It could be said that Black folks in the diaspora intuited the meaning and value of the idea that, “impression without expression equals depression” (author unknown). Furthermore, we can well imagine that the cost of suppressing the response to nearly unrelenting projections of inferiority would most certainly result in depression if not despair. But despite the evidence of what Dr. Joyce Degruy termed “post traumatic slave syndrome,”(Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing. Dr Joy DeGru, 2005. Uptone Press) which shows up as a host of public health issues among Black folks, despair is not common on the group level. In my view, this lack of despair has been in large part owing to the overcoming practices of African Americans.
Overcoming—the act of expressing authenticity—allows the presence and expression of love under loveless conditions; laughter when ain’t nothin’ funny.
Overcoming sometimes arises as a fleeting moment, such as when the captured sing a song of release, or ritually make divine contact, and that fear is momentarily rendered mute. Overcoming can be a centuries-long journey into the heart of darkness while still holding on to the sense that something else is there with you, loving you and buoying you. It can reveal itself as a holding force that knows what you are; knows what you are made of. When one gains awareness of this holding as a meeting with a transpersonal force, a crucible forms whereby spiritual capacities might be honed, if that be one’s spiritual will.
Under the influence of these applied getting over practices—of music, spoken word, embodied grace and authenticity—heart as well as soul qualities are preserved and refined. The collective becomes the repository of powers that only show up when these practices are brought to bear.
Overcoming—the act of expressing authenticity—allows the presence and expression of love under loveless conditions; laughter when ain’t nothin’ funny; hip swaying and dipping in assertion of sovereignty, even when doing so might bring on the wrath of the jailers as well as one’s own folk. Overcoming can mean revealing one’s prophetic voice despite countless forms of silencing.
The benefits of honing overcoming capacities may extend beyond the preservation of soul qualities. It may also help to preserve the heart, which Baby Suggs Holy declares, in Tony Morrison’s Beloved, to be the prize. Overcoming can thus result in finding in one’s heart, to everyone’s wonder and bewilderment, love even for one’s captor. This connection to heart energies can allow the invisible web of belonging to reveal itself in response to all attempts to erase belonging.
And most of all, overcoming is discovering time and again that what a people is defies the laws made by humans, and that what one truly is makes possible not only survival, but thriving. Overcoming in the way that I am using it here is nothing shy of miraculous.
He dreamed of a holy pilgrimage to the place where the horrors of the institution of slavery and its offshoots could be faced head-on.
Black people in the United States learned, of necessity, practices of overcoming. Those capacities—the capacity for tapping into subtle realms of invisible power as well as the capacity for expression and release tell a story about why Black folks are still here. Those practices were honed in the hush harbors where folk gathered to bear witness and testify to the anguish of captivity.
Those practices were refined under the blazing southern sun where the folk labored without cease, without recompense, and without any right of protest. Those skills and capacities went mostly unnoticed, though they have shed a holy light onto the planet for centuries.
Around the globe, the creative genius of the enslaved and their descendants—through their music, spoken word, embodied grace and authenticity—has been keenly felt, and often imitated. In the following story, describing an unusual occurrence, a racially, culturally and socioeconomically mixed group of folks find themselves in a situation where the need for practices of overcoming arises. It is a story that demonstrates the intercultural potentialities of these modes of experiencing.
Briefly consider the context of the story: GLIDE Memorial is a foundation and a church, located in the heart of the Tenderloin (TL) district of San Francisco. The TL is home to some of the city’s poorest and most marginalized people. What can easily be hidden from view in more affluent neighborhoods is far more visible here. Poverty, unsanitary conditions, lack of grocery stores, open drug sales and use, and untreated mental health distress present themselves in open view.
This vibrant and ever-struggling neighborhood borders Union Square where opulent hotels and upscale retail markets beckon the affluent of San Francisco and beyond.
GLIDE earned national and international acclaim as a result of the bold and tireless work of its founders, Rev. Dr. Cecil Williams and San Francisco poet laureate Janice Mirikitani. Reverend Williams was assigned to GLIDE Church in 1964. At the time he was, by appearance, a suit and tie minister with a short cropped haircut. However, within a very short time, he was moving towards the fulfillment of a lifelong dream of preaching and ministering to a radically diverse congregation, with all that diversity brought with it. White shirt gave way to African dashiki, and the conservative haircut to a billowy Afro.
Before the term “liberation theology” was widely known, Williams instituted at least one of its principles: “for the people”. But Williams also brought the ideas of radical acceptance and unconditional love—two ideals that led to a distinct branding of the liberation theology movement. Eventually all barriers to inclusion, including the hymnals and the crucifix, were removed from the sanctuary. Like the Black culture from which Williams springs—a culture of inclusivity—Williams declared, “The church is not the building, but the people.” GLIDE’s doors opened (and remain open) for high and low alike.
Shortly after Williams arrived, Janice Mirikitani joined to support the work. Mirikitani’s genius for operationalizing the dream of a just and loving community, and her commitment to the women and children of the Tenderloin, combined with Williams’ courage to speak truth to power, advocate for the people, and put his body on the line for justice. Williams and Mirikitani were able to transform lives, support liberation movements, influence policy makers, and feed the people.
These commitments and the actions spurred by them, have insured GLIDE’s role in San Francisco and beyond as a moral authority offering guidance and leadership on some of the most important and controversial issues of our time.
So it is no surprise that the senior leadership of GLIDE championed an experience that has become known as the Alabama Pilgrimage. With the help of donors across various sectors, the pilgrimage has, for three years running, enabled over 300 folks to make the trip to Montgomery, Alabama, where key historical sites of slavery and liberation stand. We go to “explore the wreck and not the story of the wreck” …“to see the damage that was done and the treasures that prevail.” (Diving into the Wreck, by Adrienne Rich)
The inspiration for GLIDE’s Alabama Pilgrimage came to Rabbi Michael Lezak (GLIDE’s Social Justice Rabbi) as he pondered Bryan Stevenson’s, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (2015).
Stevenson lays bare the truth about mass incarceration of Black people as a modern day morphing of the system of slavery. In his book, Stevenson invites us to face the truth of what the narrative of racial superiority has wrought. After exposing the through-line from slavery to mass incarceration, he issues a four-point challenge: 1) Get proximate to the problem and its effects; 2) Create new narratives; 3) Do uncomfortable things; and 4) Stay tethered to hope.
Some of the group expressed numbness; others heartbreak. Many wore the familiar look of tightly held rage.
Lezak takes this challenge to heart. While Lezak´s passion for justice has been rekindled by Stevenson’s work to slow the hemorrhaging of Black men by state-sponsored cruelty and even murder, his thirst for justice reaches back to when he was a student of Manning Marable, who first introduced him to culture heroes like Malcolm X.
Organizing and leading a GLIDE-sponsored pilgrimage to Montgomery Legacy Museum; and the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, both co-founded by Stevenson, brought Lezak closer to realizing his longing to be a justice-serving rabbi. He dreamed of a holy pilgrimage to the place where the horrors of the institution of slavery and its offshoots could be faced head-on. He wanted folks to be brought to their knees. These two sites became for most the key moments of the Alabama Pilgrimage.
The conceptualization for this facilitated trip was motivated by deep spiritual, social, psychological, and justice commitments. The participant group would be highly diverse and possess varying levels of understanding and capacity for bearing witness to what lay ahead.
We would need to track and work with the fragile racial dynamics, ever present in U.S. cultural life. We would need to address the educational differences among us. Some of the people on the trip—even some of African American ancestry—did not know of the history of lynching in this country. In fact, the participants included staff and congregants from across GLIDE’s community (a multi-faith and non-religious community); members of Rabbi Noa Kushner’s Jewish congregation, The Kitchen, as well as agencies and organizations from San Francisco including a group of healthcare leaders from the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine.
A number of Black folks in the group were children and grandchildren of those who migrated from the South to the North over the course of three or four decades, seeking relief from anti-Black terrorism. Perhaps understandably, their families never spoke of the hard things they’d witnessed or suffered through.
Given our motivations, each year we have prepared ourselves and each other for the pilgrimage in pre-Alabama classes held in the inspirationally-named Freedom Hall at GLIDE. The purpose of these classes is to build beloved community before embarking on the pilgrimage, to get proximate with each other, and to learn. We learned from Rabbi Lezak important Hebrew concepts such as t’shuvah (to turn; to make amends), cria (to tear), Mizraim (a name for Egypt, or the squeezed place) and chesed (loving kindness).
We agreed that this pilgrimage would rest on a covenantal foundation, meaning that we would hold it to be holy and far from business as usual. We were invited to cleave to one another but, at the same time, white folks were asked to be mindful of the habitual ways that they are taught to lean in on people of color for comfort and reassurance when racial wounds are activated.
My training in group work is rooted in several domains: Re-evaluation Counseling, where I first learned the beauty of emotional or affective release as an indispensable aspect of healing from the wounds of oppression; Imaginal psychology, which contributes to the psychology of group life, the role of ritual and poesís in making room for what cannot be easily digested through the filter of normative identity; and Black culture and identity, where authenticity and embodied existence were gifted to me by my people and their people before them.
I see my function to be that of caring for the affective experiences of the folks on the pilgrimage and attending to soul’s evocations. With the motto, “impression without expression equals depression” as a guide, I have insured, to the best of my ability, the creation of space for the expression of experience.
With this lengthy but necessary context complete, I offer you my version of what happened on one warm spring day in Montgomery, Alabama just a few years ago.
On March 14, 2019, at the final gathering of our pilgrimage, over 100 brave souls gathered in the large community room above the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. was pastor from 1954 to 1960. This was the home of the famous bus boycott that non-violently put a crack in the ironclad racial apartheid of the region.
We came here to close out the pilgrimage. Rabbi Lezak called the group together for this final goodbye. Working his personal and Jewish magic, he reminded us of why we had come here and declared again our covenantal relationship to each other, to this place, and to the people whose lives were taken to feed the sick needs of white supremacy. He offered that after three hard days we had claimed to be a new justice Torah. I was up next to lead the group in an integrative experience encompassing all that had transpired on the pilgrimage.
I was losing the group. Would this be the final memory of the pilgrimage? Would we have to board the bus in this state of fragmentation?
I had thought long and hard the previous night about how to help the group integrate the days’ experiences of visiting the Memorial and Museum—both of which only begin to capture the brutality of slavery’s legacy and the country’s persistent post slavery efforts to block Black progress. Each day ended with people processing the emotions and insights engendered by what we’d experienced.
Some of the group expressed numbness; others heartbreak. Many wore the familiar look of tightly held rage. And still others simply sagged from the weight of it all. But now we had to bring some kind of closure to the event, and it was on me to lead that.
I invited people to pair up and make eye contact, and to silently convey their deep connection and gratitude for being on this journey together. Within minutes, eye contact gave way to hugs, many of them tearful. Miguel Bustos, Senior Director of GLIDE’s Center for Social Justice, offered the Prayer of St. Francis, which further softened the field.
Suddenly, folks who faced the huge plate glass window with a view of the main road gasped, and focused—nearly in unison, as if some invisible thread connected them to the spectacle on the street below. Within seconds, everyone’s attention was on that scene. Folks pressed against each other to see what was happening: A small procession, maybe a block long, of white folks, unlike any parade we Californians had ever witnessed. People in the parade, as well as the six or eight horses in front wore garb reminiscent of the Klan, white robes. These polite “paraders,” claimed the space of the street with confidence and apparent dignity. (Later, a white man from our group found them and engaged in a matter of fact conversation with some of their members who identified the group as “True Americans.”)
Just like that, as our vulnerable and raw group looked down onto the street, the loving and tender unifying energy, which only moments before had suffused the room, was gone. The feeling of love was vanquished by the ghosts of a past that would not yield, that refused to surrender to the call of a new and different dream.
Chaos suddenly snatched the moment and the space. No one knew what to do. Several men expressed their urgent intent to go down there and confront the paraders. Yet we all knew our brothers didn’t really want to do that. This impulse was some remnant of a past in which males took the role of protector—facing danger head-on, fighting fire with fire. I could feel it too, this urge to stand up to terror and declare our freedom from this aspect of our collective history.
As I worked hard to hold the group, I could also feel its fear, like ice water in the veins, fear that lives at the base of the skull, ever on the alert to fight, flee or freeze in the face of threat. It seems to shut down the neocortex altogether. Immersed in this fear, all thoughts come from autopilot.
The feeling of love was vanquished by the ghosts of a past that would not yield, that refused to surrender to the call of a new and different dream.
My heart sank. Why was this happening? Why was this procession outside our window now? Why now? We were so close to ending, and what a beautiful ending it had promised to be.
What to do next? The facilitator in me reached for what to do. I willed myself to “be still and know.” Breathe! I told myself. I thought about the core human capacity memorized and practiced in my amazing graduate school education—“reflexive participation.”
This moment with my people in Montgomery presented a perfect opportunity to “surrender through creative action to the necessities, meanings and possibilities inherent in the present moment” (Aftab Omer, personal communication. 12/96).
I knew the chartered bus that would take people to the airport stood silent half a block away, just 2 hours before departure time. I was losing the group. Would this be the final memory of the pilgrimage? Would we have to board the bus in this state of fragmentation?
I stood to the side listening to the urgent buzz of unsettled voices, feeling the heat of the room close in. What was the necessity of this moment? To bring the group back to coherence; to give space for how folks were affected; and to take back the space.
Two stories floated to the surface of my mind, one anecdotal, the other captured through art. The first was from an interview I had heard with Bernice Johnson Reagon, founding member of Student Non-violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) Freedom Singers.
She did not single out the healing of Black folks; the offer was for everyone. And it did not stop there.
Ms. Reagon told of an all too common occurrence during the freedom movement era of the 1960’s. Black folks used the churches not only as houses of worship but also as a network of safe harbors for strategizing, checking in, tending to folks, and galvanizing the spirit of the movement. Not infrequently white police would saunter uninvited into the sanctuaries of the churches. Sometimes they would spread out around the sanctuary, often taking down names of those they recognized. Reagon recounts how the energy would change in these spaces— terror sucking out the air.
After a little while, someone from the pews would begin to hum or voice a song that was familiar to all. Slowly at first, and then with more force, “song would take back the room,” recalled Reagon.
In the second story, “Baby Suggs Holy,” the “unrobed, unlettered” ex-enslaved preacher woman, calls the folk to a clearing where spirituality can spread out in the ways my people used to prefer.
After having them dance, laugh and cry together, ending in a group catharsis, she tells them that “the only grace they would know would be the grace they could imagine.” She invites them to love themselves despite the lack of love in this place. She ends this invitation with these words:
“. . .and the beat and beating heart, love that too. More than eyes or feet. More than lungs that have yet to draw free air. More than your life-holding womb and your life giving private parts, hear me now, love your heart. For this is the prize.” (Beloved, Toni Morrison. 1987)
The reverie and reflection of these two stories happened in a flash.
Ah ha! I knew. This moment called for ritualizing. Folks needed to be able to express how they were affected by the evocative spectacle on the street below. They needed to express their experience, without having the experience take us down.
To put it plainly, we needed to create our own hush harbor right here and now. And somehow we needed to move from a state of disempowerment to one of self-compassion, dignity and, hopefully, joy. Something wanted to rip us apart. It is that some something that kept people of all races from standing up to the invisible hand of oppression. It counts on division, separation. So we needed to re-establish connection.
In my research I had learned that by beginning with the first impulse to express, the pump is primed. The first step was to get the group to return to the circle. The first thing that I needed in that moment, arose from within me. I could feel the power of its effect upon the group and me as I spoke the first words. I could trust that the next words and gestures, prayers and actions would follow, building one upon the other.
A black woman watches as robed Ku Klux Klansmen walk in downtown Montgomery, Alabama, prior to a cross burning rally that night, November 24, 1956. (AP Photo)
The preach that came from me went along these lines: “We’re taught to pay attention to the negative; to shake our fist at evil. But only Light dispels darkness. We can choose right here and now to withdraw our attention from the negative to dispel it. What we’ve seen here has sent a jolt of cortisol through our systems, and right now our task is to master the cortisol burst. Let us begin by calming the nervous system.”
I spoke these words with the calm certitude with which they’d been offered to my mind, and which I hoped the group would accept as their own. The people at the window began to peel themselves away and slowly return to the circle. The trance state brought on by the fight/flight/freeze reaction we’d all entered loosened its grip enough so that something more meaningful and potent could come through.
I then invited the group to sit in silence for a moment and notice what had come up for them. After some time in silence I asked people to allow a gesture to come into their minds that could convey how they felt and what they may have wanted to do in reaction to the parade.
“What gesture describes your state of mind? At the count of 3 I will ask you to show us your gesture—all at once. Then hold that position for as long as you can so that we can all see each other’s gestures.”
This practice serves several functions, but suffice it to say that all too often we ask people to just stop feeling or experiencing what they are feeling or experiencing. But our practices, rooted in care of the soul, aim to restore experience, not suppress it. This is one way we show respect for the soul.
Next, I asked for just a few people to bring words to their gestures, in order that what was there could be spoken into the circle. Naturally folks expressed a number of thoughts, feelings and urges. Most of these we just held with respect. Some warranted response from me as the facilitator.
A key moment of response on my part arose when Ce’Mara, a GLIDE staff person and young mother in her 30s exclaimed with unapologetic passion and moral authority, “I feel like we need to blanket this entire region with prayer. For the suffering that happened here, for the suffering that is still happening here. I want to bless this place. We get to go back home to San Francisco, but what will happen with our brothers and sisters we leave behind?”
In the spirit of call and response, I asked Ce’Mara, “Would you be so kind as to start the prayer?”
Ce’Mara closed her eyes and extended her arms as a prayer began to take shape in her heart, mind and on her lips. We are an improvisational people, so the prayer rolled off her tongue as if she’d written it somewhere. It transformed the space immediately given her authenticity and spiritual power.
When Ce’Mara finished her prayer, another Black person, followed by yet another lifted their voices in prayer. After a few Black folks prayed, several others offered their prayers.
At some point, another GLIDE staff person, Lamont, reminded us of a song he had composed and offered earlier in the pilgrimage, “We can change the world”. We joined him in singing the song, allowing “song to take back the space.” And with each succeeding prayer or offering, the energy in the room transmuted into something more holy, even more powerful than when we’d begun.
Once the collective prayer was completed, our beloved Vernon Bush, director of the GLIDE Ensemble (chorus), led the group in a call and response chant that completed the restoration of experience.
I am somebody; I am someone
My voice gives power to everyone
My body’s able to hear the call
I’m ready to give my all and all
Many magical things happened in that last hour. Ghosts of the past had haunted that room on that lovely spring day in Montgomery. Perhaps the ghosts came to give us yet another taste of what Black folks raised in this area knew all too well—a reminder of the Old South’s reign of terror.
But just as the enslaved folk managed to make “somethin’ outta nothin”, to create and make holy what others defiled, so also did we perform a little miracle in that room that day. We ritualized, preached and ministered to each other. Wisdom sprang up, channeled by multiple members of the group, and shouts of Amen, both figurative and literal, met one holy gesture after another.
Ce’Mara’s prayer was a curative offering on behalf of all. No mere protest; rather, it was a healing offering, one that called the group back to its own sovereignty. We may never be able to apprehend the impact of the generosity conveyed by her intent to “blanket the region with prayer.”
She did not single out the healing of Black folks; the offer was for everyone. And it did not stop there. Her call to pray for the blood-soaked land implied a universal sharing of the heart. My preach, Lamont’s and Vernon’s songs, as well as the fervent desire for true freedom that we all shared, were all prayers of sorts.
Among us, the spirit of African religion rose up to meet the thief who’d come to take our blessing. We in that room were connected to the wisdom of the African diaspora where there is no dogma attached to the religion. We, like many before us, had to dig deep into our souls to find its roots. Perhaps the African DNA is slow to surrender to captivity, slow to give up its soul.
The African roots of religion privilege physicality and expressivity. These roots inspire the sort of improvising that gave birth to the Negro Spirituals that are so loved around the world. That moment in that room at that church tap the roots grounded in West African soil as well as the blood, sweat, tears, moans, and wails of enslaved Africans here in America.
As they have done for hundreds of years and will do for unknown hundreds more, African and African-American ancestors helped us shape those religious inclinations into something new and universally compelling.