part of the
Wandering the hall before the performances revealed a profound discrepancy in dress between the whites and the Blacks. You don't hear with your shoes, of course, but how you dress helps define the dignity you grant an event.
Without exception, the Blacks dressed so as to underscore the dignity, importance and seriousness that choir has in Black religion. Many of the whites, however, treated it as a cross between an evening off and a Little Richard concert. They were probably proud of themselves for "letting go" of their inhibitions. It felt, in fact, like they were slumming.
Even though we were using space from what isn't—but should be—called a white college, this was a Black-defined and generated event. I felt left out of the private communication among the Blacks, who interacted with a respectful informality that contrasted nicely with the relative tightness of their attire. I was looked through and past; not with hostility, but with indifference, as though I were invisible. I was tolerated, but without currency.
After a while I found myself seeking out the gaze of fellow whites, who had begun to appear as lost and goofy as myself. "Hey, bro!" I said under my breath, to a stiff, white Quaker with a good natured grin waiting desperately to form on his mouth.
The event began with a preacher preaching, welcoming, thanking, praising, preaching. He was spellbinding——until he mentioned the government, at which point he tripped over words too carefully chosen, as you would trip on feet too closely monitored. Finally, he threw up his hands, said a swift prayer for our government and regained his eloquence.
The music began and soon became a wave of sound, all blended and perfect and filling, and it rose me up.
There appeared to be no superstars in a competitive sense, but there was room for individual expression by women and men alike, which was joyously appreciated. I tried in vain to recall any media coverage of this sort of Black-on-Black support.
I suddenly found myself in inexplicable tears. There was no manipulative self pity in the lyrics; none of the "Why us, Lord, why, of all people, us?" that I remember from my youth. And some of the lyrics ("I can't live without His love"), endlessly repeated, meant nothing to me. But the tears flowed, and the mystery deepened.
Daniel's virtually all white choir finally got up on stage, the boys' hair cut in the inner city style, Air Jordan's, a profusion of media-correct paraphernalia,
looking so isolated, surrounded, vulnerable. White.
They sang well and were received accordingly by an audience that might not have done so. The Blacks in that auditorium momentarily forgave them their trespass with dignity, humor and grace. Amazing grace.
I realized that I had experienced some moments of my son's performance from a racial distance. I had temporarily seen him as the white other.
I had vicariously tasted a sample of the Black experience in this country. I had been isolated, surrounded, and, in some non-physical sense, threatened. I couldn't make myself fit. Like the Preacher, I smiled and stumbled on words too carefully chosen—a rage concealed. I was perpetually ill at ease.
The music, finally, brought borrowed memories of a period when the parents and grandparents of those singing were free only to cry.
I experienced the disjunction between the joy, passion, dignity and hope of the song, meeting, and people on one hand, and the despair of Monday on the other. For many, this occasion to dress up was not matched by the requirements of their weekday jobs. The tension between the event and the life was an extreme version of the dread experienced during a good Sunday party ... when you think of what lies ahead.
An explanation, in part, for the tears.