You’ll Never Hear Kumbaya the Same Way Again

Sunday, February 13, 2011 - 7:46 am

You’ll Never Hear Kumbaya the Same Way Again


There are a few moments from behind the glass that stop me dead in my tracks — times during an interview when a wise voice creates a new opportunity to hear something differently. To challenge a conceit. To envelop the listener in the womb of silent storytelling and place one in a position of listening profundity. Vincent Harding did just that.

In the audio above, the theologian and speechwriter for Martin Luther King Jr. creates that vulnerable opening and ever so gently corrects, without admonishment, when the "We Shall Overcome" (1964)“Kumbaya” is referred to as a soft and squishy moment of song:

“Whenever somebody jokes about ‘Kumbaya,’ my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types to come and help in the process of voter registration and freedom school teaching and taking great risks on behalf of that state and of this nation. …

In group after group, people were singing:
Kumbaya. “Come by here my Lord. Somebody’s missing Lord. Come by here.” ‘

I could never laugh at kumbaya moments after that. Because I saw that almost no one went home from there. This whole group of people decided that they were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together, Kumbaya.”

I know I’ve used this this reference to a “kumbaya moment” in a slightly pejorative way. This no longer holds true. I can no longer judge using this label. Let Vincent Harding’s story be a lesson for us all.

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is the cofounder of On Being and currently serves as chief content officer and executive editor. He received a Peabody Award in 2007 for his work on “The Ecstatic Faith of Rumi” and garnered two Webby Awards (in 2005, and again in 2008). The Online News Association nominated his journalistic work multiple times in the general excellence and outstanding specialty journalism categories. Trent’s reported and produced stories from Turkey to rural Alabama, from Israel and the West Bank to Cambridge, England.

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