I have no problem crying in public, especially in front of a class of kids or adults I’m teaching. But today I was an inch away from breaking down totally in front of 40 beautiful Colombian souls. And no surprise. The unspoken saying is, “It ain’t a jazz class until the teacher cries.”
This one came from a session of videos showing the progression from Minstrel Shows to Vaudeville to Broadway Musicals to Hollywood Musicals. Clips from The Jazz Singer, Singing in the Rain, Stormy Weather. It started with Al Jolson singing Mammy in blackface, went on to Bill Robinson and Shirley Temple and Fred Astaire’s tribute to Bill Robinson with a twist (he’s in blackface) and ended with Fats Waller, Bill Robinson, Cab Calloway and the dazzling Nicholas Brothers.
One student asked when Americans realized what incredible contributions black people made with the sheer genius of their skill, spirit and hard work in music, dance and such. When did they realize what a mistake they had made treating them so badly? When did they acknowledge the deep spirit of their work and thank them for what they gave to the world? And my answer was, “When indeed. Well, not quite yet.”
I started talking about my theory of no progress until we as a culture apologize and not only apologize, but deeply feel the grief of the suffering mainstream white folks have caused, let the deep sorrow in. Of course, people in general are terrified of opening their hearts to emotion, too scary and vulnerable. And people inheriting the story of unearned privilege that not only have to face messy emotions, but also the death of their fantasy of racial superiority, are even less likely to go there. So we deny, deny, deny, repress, repress, repress, hide, hide, hide and the catastrophe continues unchecked. We cheer for the black athletes of our home team, but grow conveniently silent around the next police murder of a black man driving. We refuse to learn our history and wrap ourselves in the pop fluff sensation of constant electronic distraction and the hideous ignorance of the daily news shows. And so on and so on.
In the middle of one sentence, I stopped and felt the waves of sorrow and grief rise in my body and that was when I could have fallen to the floor in uncontrollable sobs. Instead, I channeled the energy into my go-to song in these occasions and got the whole room to eventually join me. The song that says precisely what we need: Go down into grief, choose to go down, awake and alert and willing to cry and weep for all we have done. And then rise up, wipe the eyes, turn to the one you love best and you don’t get to choose. Just spin around in a circle with your eyes half-closed and arm raised with finger pointing and wherever it stops, that’s the one you will go down to cry with. Whether it’s a disabled lesbian black Muslim or a Trump-supporting Republican, you just grab their hand and go down. (Though the latter will not likely be at the Orff workshop and if so, willing to either hold your hand nor sing nor get down—but hey, I’m willing to be surprised.) Don’t avoid grief and repentance, but also don’t wallow in guilt and remorse. Wipe your eyes and rise up singing. It’s a new day and the rising will heal exactly proportionate to the depth of the grief. And look at Fats and Bill Robinson and the Nicholas Brothers! Didn’t you feel their joy? That’s what the triumph of the spirit looks and feels like.
Thank you to these lovely Colombian folks for sharing the moment with me. Americans, are you ready to go down? I mean, really ready? Let’s go.
Little Sally Walker, sitting in a saucer.
Cryin’ and a’weepin’ over all she has done.
Rise, Sally, Rise. Wipe those cryin’ eyes.
Turn to the East, Sally. Turn to the West, Sally.
Turn to the very one that you love the best.