On Easter Sunday, April 9, 1939, Marian Anderson, an opera superstar, performed on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial because the largest auditorium, Constitution Hall, would not allow an African American to perform. The Secretary of the Interior, Harold L. Ickes, invited Anderson to sing, saying “Genius draws no color line.” There, in front of 75,000 people and a live radio audience, Anderson began with “My Country ‘Tis of Thee” in front of a crowd of all races. In the final stanza, she ended with “Of thee we sing.”
Later, Anderson said she changed the lyric because she wished to indicate that “we” are a community. While nothing in Marian Anderson’s performance was overtly a civil rights act, how could it be denied? She did not believe herself to be a civil rights activist, only a singer, who possessed what the critics called “a voice such as one hears in a hundred years.” But, many historians argue that this one performance was “an important prelude to the Civil Rights Movement to come.”
On Wednesday, April 9, 2014, 75 years later, Sharon Jones, an African American superstar, along with her band the Dap Kings, performed at the State Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She performed in front of 2,180 people, in the most beautiful gold and silver dress that shimmied and shimmered with her every movement. But it was not the dress that glowed at us, all the way up in the balcony; it was the light within Jones. Like Anderson, Jones has a voice that one only hears every hundred years.
While Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings’ performance was not overtly a civil rights act, it was one covertly:
In an article in 2011, Jones states:
The raspy-voiced diva dropped her first album with the Dap Kings when she was in her forties. She tried breaking through in the music industry two decades earlier, she says. “But I didn’t have the looks. This Sony guy told me I was too black, too fat, too short, and too old. Told me to go and bleach my skin. Told me to step in the background and just stay back.” After getting turned down, Jones worked as a Rikers Island corrections officer, a Wells Fargo security guard, a sanitation officer, in postal offices, and as a wedding singer. “I was still doing the Wells Fargo thing when I met the Dap Kings,” she says. For all those years, she knew she could really sing. “I just thought, “One day. One day.” And that day came when I met those guys.”
How far have we really come in 75 years? Yes, there was nothing unusual or worth mentioning about an African American woman performing with a diversity of musicians in front of a large group of people who worshipped them in 2014. But those who tout the civil rights movement or the election of a black president as evidence that this is an end to discrimination, a breaking down of barriers, an erasing of the color line, are simply fooling themselves. Sharon Jones clearly felt the same barriers as Anderson, many years later.
What’s the point? Will we ever find our way out or around the color line? Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings give us another way to look at the world. Instead, of focusing on the color line, they focus on what it means to be human.
Before the concert, I listened to all the Sharon Jones I could get my hands on. My favorite song, above all the others was called, “Humble Me.”
The narrator is singing to a greater power:
Now, ooh, let me be grateful, oh
For all that Ive seen
And all that I have here
And they’ll be around me, ooh yeah, now
Ooh, make me grateful for my voice, oh
That I might lift you up, yeah, yeah
Ooh, now grateful for these old legs, oh yeah
That I might jump and come and shout, yeah oh
Grateful for the music
That puts my soul on high, oh
Ooh, Im grateful for you people
Who comes out to hear me each and every night
Oh, please, oh, let me be
Humble, humble me
Dont let me forget who I am
Humble me, humble little of me
Dont let me forget who I am
I played the song 10 times before the concert and countless times since. The song makes me feel closer to my divine Universe, to myself, and to her. Several moments during the concert, I felt it was just me in that giant auditorium communing with the light that shown so bright within Jones.
But, this song, while not sung at the concert we were at, also gave deeper meaning to the last section of the evening. For her final encore, Jones came on and openly spoke about her recent battle with cancer. Finding herself cancer free for the 3rd month, she talked about how she was worried about how ugly her nails were from the chemo and how her hair was gone. But she knew she had to perform because she could. She dedicated the last song, “Get Up, Get Out” to a man suffering from cancer in the audience.
She said, “A few months ago, I was laying in a hospital bed with tubes out of me. I had no idea if I was going to be here in Minneapolis.” And she fought her cancer. I began to cry because a few months ago or a few years ago, Joel and I had no idea if we would be here. We didn’t know if we could survive what the world threw at us. But here we all were, communing together, enjoying our own Gods and Goddesses and love of being alive and acknowledging our mortality.
In the end, we need to start seeing each other as mortal and as human. One year ago this month, the Boston Marathon bombers took lives and destroyed dreams of humans simply because of their location.
Sharon Jones will continue to bring community, humanity, love and peace to all those who hear her voice. “Of thee we sing”