by Rev. Terry Davis
Delivered at Northwest Unitarian Universalist Congregation
on August 27, 2017
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
—The Negro Speaks of Rivers, Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
In elementary school, that was the happy, little way I learned how to spell the big word Mississippi. Likewise, the stories I heard and read as a child about the big Mississippi River were happy, too, in an adventuresome sort of way. They were the stories of American exploration and progress . . . tales that reflected our nation’s 19th century belief that we had a divine mission to expand westward,take land that wasn’t ours, and settle America’s wilderness.
What I didn’t hear or read about until I was much older were the Mississippi River’s stories of suffering . . . especially those about Native Americans, who were driven from its shores . . . and African Americans, who were bought and traded as slaves in its ports.
Standing at the window of my hotel room in New Orleans one morning this past June, I pulled back the curtain and peered down at that mighty rive with the rich and complicated past. Twenty-three stories below me, it cut and curved through the city like a big, brown snake.
As I watched its muddy waters slowly carry a giant barge downstream toward the Gulf of Mexico, I reflected on how familiar the Mississippi felt to me as a result of those stories and history lessons I learned as a child . . . and really how very little I knew about the river . . . sort of like that distant relative you’ve heard so much about but have never really met.
The poem Harry read this morning gave those of us who knew only a little about the Mississippi River a vivid introduction.
Even if we’ve never stepped in its waters or walked on its shores, the poet Philip Kolin nevertheless helps us find a place for the Mississippi in our souls when he writes:
I am the lutenist of the swamps
I am a road with infinite shores
a hideaway for ballads
a riddle on solitude
a slave’s ride south to hell
a graveyard for old tires . . .
the darkest place on earth.1) Philip C. Kolin, “The River’s Proclamation,” Down to the Dark River: Contemporary Poems About the Mississippi River, Philip C. Kolin & Jack B. Bedell, editors (Louisiana Literature Press, Hammond, LA: 2016), 105.
While the Mississippi River may be muddy and complicated, perhaps reflecting on it can help us see clear to the bottom of our own human complexity. We might see that pain and promise will continue to flow like silt and sunlight through our own lives.
And we might see that all of our joys and struggles will continue to shift and change us, just as the shores of the Mississippi continue to shift and change over time.
Langston Hughes’s poem about the Mississippi, which he wrote as a teenager in 1920 as the train he was riding crossed the river, honors the collective experience, suffering and triumph of African American people.
In an interview, Hughes recalls how the river reminded him of that powerful history:
Just outside of St. Louis, I looked out the window and saw this great muddy river flowing down toward the heart of the South. And, I began to think about what this river meant to the Negro people . . . how, in a sense, our history was linked to this river . . . how in slavery times, my grandmother told me that to be sold down the Mississippi was one of the worst things that could happen to a Negro slave.
And, then, I remembered I read about Abraham Lincoln going down the Mississippi as a young man. And, he went on a raft to New Orleans and he saw human beings bought and sold in the slave market there, and he was so horrified by this that he never forgot it. And, many years later we know that it was Lincoln who signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
And, so, as the train went into the gathering dusk – because it had been about sunset when we crossed the river – I took my father’s letter out of the back of my pocket and began to write on the back of the letter this poem, The Negro Speaks of Rivers.
It seems that the train ride across the Mississippi invited Hughes to honor the flow of pain and promise experienced by African Americans, as well as his own deep wisdom.
At our UUA General Assembly, which took place in New Orleans on the shores of the historic Mississippi, I received an invitation, too, of both a different and similar sort. There was much discussion this year about building greater awareness of the ways we unknowingly perpetuate systems of white supremacy within Unitarian Universalism. Congregations were asked to have courageous and beloved conversations about this so that we can discover where we are in our own awareness journey and what we might do to change and grow.
And, so, as I return to you today from the mighty Mississippi and from a summer rocked by the events of Charlottesville, I am asking you.
I am asking you to support our lay leaders in their discussions about what Northwest’s next steps might be to examine racism and any discomfort we may have in talking about it. I’m asking you to consider participating in any action for change within Northwest and any social justice work we might do in the wider community to dismantle white supremacy.
I’m asking you not to stand by, but to get involved, because I believe the blatant racism, bigotry and hatred we witnessed in Charlottesville, as well as the recent multiple resignations of UUA leaders over biased hiring practices, call for a loving and courageous response from the members of this congregation.
I hope you’ll join me in exploring what we might do together.
The water we poured in our Community Water Bowl today comes down to us from our own Chattahoochee River. It will be purified and used throughout the year during Joys & Concerns and other water-based rituals.
As we use today’s water in the days ahead may it remind us of the preciousness of each life and of our beautiful and fragile planet. And, as we go from here, may we embrace the pain and promise that flows through our lives, trusting that it will shape and change us in ways that will make us wiser and make us stronger.
May we respond with love and courage, for our growth and well-being and so that we might be better able to contribute to the well-being of our hurting world.
May it be so. Amen.
References [ + ]
|1.||↑|| Philip C. Kolin, “The River’s Proclamation,” Down to the Dark River: Contemporary Poems About the Mississippi River, Philip C. Kolin & Jack B. Bedell, editors (Louisiana Literature Press, Hammond, LA: 2016), 105.|