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Murray, Mahalia, and Mavis, and Their Moments of Civic Religious Pluralism

November 10, 2021 Becca Hartman-Pickerill Interfaith Youth Core

JCC Connexions, Vol. 7, No. 4,  November 2021

Engaging Civic Religious Pluralism: An Ongoing Column in JCC Connexions

The Value of Stories

The stories we tell shape our understanding of reality and what’s possible. That is why critical approaches to history and to any media consumption are crucial, as is a consistent expansion of the stories in our mental repertoire. This is the work of so much of formal education, of course, and one of significance in popular culture. One tension in story telling in a religiously diverse democracy, especially in a time of diminishing attention spans, is to tell compelling stories that honor the nuance of each individual’s experience, yet not ignoring the community or systems-level patterns at play. A commitment to individuals’ stories helps to capture the dignity of the human experience, and attention to systems enables the kind of analysis that lead to social change.

Chimananda Ngozi Adichie: "The Danger of a Single Story"

In her blockbuster TED talk, “The Danger of a Single Story," Chimananda Ngozi Adichie powerfully articulates what psychology affirms; it is human to generalize single attributes or experiences and make assumptions about people based on observed patterns or learned stories (Adichie 2009). This is how we can manage to walk through the complex world without being immobilized by every new encounter. It is also what leads to our own biases and prejudices, and if we do not take time to address them, can lead to discrimination, treating people differently based on those biases. One antidote to this danger is to gather a broader set of stories, experiences, knowledge and relationships on which to build one’s understanding. I think about this need for myself as an active citizen engaging with my communities; as a professional when facilitating, teaching or training; and as a parent of young children. I recently enjoyed the following films for their ability to both convey the dignity of individual humans and the complexity of communities and systems that shape and are shaped by those individuals.

Pauli Murray: Author, Activist, Lawyer, Priest, Professor

My Name is Pauli Murray (2021) opens with Pauli’s writing, “I want to see America be what she says she is in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. America, be what you proclaim yourself to be!” (Cohen & West, 2021). The documentary closes with the assertion that one cannot teach U.S. history without reference to this incredible individual, born Anna Pauline Murray. Throughout her life, Pauli was a poet and author, lawyer, labor, civil rights and women’s rights activist, teacher, and professor. She coined the term Jane Crow to articulate the intersectional oppression of Black women. She was the first Black woman ordained as an Episcopal priest, would be described today as gender non-binary and queer, and her legal work is the precedent for non-discrimination cases throughout the last 50 years on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation. Throughout the film people consistently tell the story of a person profoundly ahead of their time. In the film Pauli speaks about waiting long enough for her lost causes to be found.

As a child I wanted to be a Supreme Court Justice, and Ruth Bader Ginsberg was a hero of mine; it is inspiring to see her in this film, inviting legal scholar Pauli Murray to work on her first case before the Supreme Court as a lawyer, and to draw on Murray’s legal precedence in nondiscrimination cases. I knew RBG’s name growing up but not Murray’s. As someone who inhabited many in-between places (in terms of gender, race, profession, sexuality) and pushed boundaries, Pauli was consistently calling her communities and the people in power to do better to respect human dignity and rights. Dr. Pauli Murray’s life and work, determination, and story are a profound and sobering inspiration.

Mavis Staple and Mahalia Jackson: A Spiritual Reawakening

Summer of Soul (…Or, When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) (2021) directed by Questlove, is a film about six weeks in 1969 during which three hundred thousand people attended the Harlem Cultural Festival to celebrate Black music and culture. The festival was 100 miles south of Woodstock, and among the dozens of performers are Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, B.B. King and Sly & the Family Stone. I grew up learning about Woodstock but had never heard of the Harlem Cultural Festival. In fact, among the most moving moments in the documentary are captions of festival goers and performers watching this footage for the first time, footage that has largely been unseen until this unearthing.

The scene in which  students of American civic and religious pluralism may be particularly interested comes about half-way through the film. Rev. Jesse Jackson is recounting the assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. just the year prior. The camera pans across the thousands and thousands of people on the lawn as the electric organ plays as in a church service, and Jackson narrates his memory. Then it is time to sing King’s favorite hymn, "My Precious Lord," but Mahalia Jackson cannot bring herself to the microphone. So Mavis Staple, of the Staple Singers stands and begins to sing, “precious Lord, take my hand” and her voice never breaks, though her eyes glisten and her arm raises to the heavens. A few seconds later Mahalia Jackson, tissue in hand, takes the microphone and as she had done time and time before, transcended that time and place. Staples, reflecting in present day on that experience, shares “that is still my biggest honor, to be able to sing on the same microphone with sister Mahalia Jackson” (Questlove, 2021).

The stories we tell about ourselves, our communities, our country and our world shape the way we think and impact the people around us. It is humbling and a joy to cultivate a mental library that better reflects the dynamic and diverse reality of our nation. Religious, spiritual and secular identity is part of that dynamism and a crucial part of the story.

References

Questlove. (2021). Summer of Soul (...Or, when the Revolution Could not be Televised).   https://www.searchlightpictures.com/summerofsoul/.

Adichie, C. N. (2009). The Danger of a Single Story.TED.     https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_ngozi_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?

Cohen & West. (2021). My Name is Pauli Murray. IMDB. https://www.imdb.com/title/tt11092594/