Friday, May 25, 2012

The Power of Love

Miss Ophelia's confession: 
I've always had a prejudice against Negroes, and it's a fact, I never could bear to have that child touch me; but, I don't think she knew it.

Cousin Augustine St. Clare's reply: 
Trust any child to find that out, there's no keeping it from them. But I believe that all the trying in the world to benefit a child, and all the substantial favors you can do them, will never excite one emotion of gratitude, while that feeling of repugnance remains in the heart.

"That child" is Topsy, an unruly slave-child that has known nothing of love. St. Clare refers to her as a "specimen among thousands" and she has been abused beyond imagining. Topsy refers to herself as "wicked" and Miss Ophelia cannot leave her alone for a moment lest she lash out by damaging things.

In chapter 27 of Uncle Tom's Cabin there is a scene of mourning. St. Clare's angelic young daughter Eva has  died and the entire household is pretty shaken up.

We find Topsy, speaking out in a burst of anguish:
She said she loved me, she did! O, dear! oh, dear! there an't nobody left now, -- there an't! I just wish I hadn't never been born, I didn't want to be born, no ways; and I don't see no use on 't.

And now we see Miss Ophelia -- the prim northerner who has taken on the seemingly impossible task of cultivating Topsy. She raises her gently and takes her from the room. With these words she consoles her:
Topsy, you poor child, don't give up! I can love you, though I am not like that dear little [Eva]. I hope I've learnt something of the love of Christ from her. I can love you; I do, and I'll try to help you to grow up a good Christian girl.

Miss Ophelia's voice was more than her words, and more than that were the honest tears that fell down her face. From that hour, she acquired an influence over the mind of the destitute child that she never lost.
And so we find that love is the magic formula that miraculously transforms Topsy from "depravity" (as Miss Ophelia put it) to a sensible soul striving for good.
"If we want to give sight to the blind, we must be willing to do as Christ did, -- call them to us, and put our hands on them." ~ Harriet Beecher Stowe

A favorite video for you, dear readers -- 

because you are loved!


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

My Soundtrack for Uncle Tom's Cabin

I'll always remember the first time I heard "Ezekiel Saw the Wheel". I was nineteen and living with my grandparents for the summer. My grandfather was dying of cancer and I wanted to be near him for the last few months of his life. I stayed in the guest bedroom on one end of their mobile home. Though small, the room was clean and comfortable. My grandmother's antique bed, which had belonged to her mother, took up most of the space. I had to turn sideways to get in. It was spread with a bleached-white quilt and had springs.

One hot night, I was sitting cross-legged on the bed, cross-stitching a sampler by lamplight. The window was open. Some classical music was playing softly on the radio...

It was an ordinary moment -- and then, quite suddenly, it was an extra-ordinary moment. Over the radio came a recording of an African American choir singing a spiritual a cappella. It was "Ezekial Saw the Wheel". Even now, seventeen years later, the experience of hearing this song for the first time is still vivid in my mind.

How can I describe it?  Haunting. Soul-stirring. Deep. (Who can say what it means?)
I jumped out of that big springy bed and turned up the volume, then stood transfixed until the last bit of harmony faded to silence.

I made a mental note to purchase the CD, but I never did.
Until a few weeks ago.

As I was preparing to start Uncle Tom's Cabin, I was thinking about how moving African American choral music is and how I wish I could find that one song that made the hair stand on the back of my neck so long ago.

So I consulted my crystal ball  did a quick search online. (Don't you just love how you can listen to samples of songs before you buy music nowadays?) And...

I found it!!!

Not only does this disc have my beloved "Ezekiel Saw The Wheel" it's loaded with other spiritual gems:
From inside the Smithsonian Folkways cover: "African Americans moved out of slavery into freedom with the story of their journey wrapped in the songs they sang."
What are these songs, and what do they mean? I know little of music and can say nothing in technical phrase, but I know something of men, and knowing them, I know that these songs are the articulate message of the slave to the world. ~ W.E.B. DuBois
Inside the cover: a picture of the Fisk Jubilee Singers

The songs in this recording were first popularized by the Fisk Jubilee Singers during the Reconstruction years. In an effort to raise funds for their struggling school, the singers went on a tour of northern cities with the songs they had brought with them out of slavery. "They did not view this sacred repertoire as concert material. It spoke with an inside voice that they could understand."

I did not, when a slave, fully understand the deep meaning of those crude and apparently incoherent songs. I was, myself, within the circle, so that I could then neither hear nor see as those without might see and hear. They breathe the prayer and complaint of souls overflowing with bitterest anguish. ~ Fredrick Douglass

Some of the songs on the recording such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot", "Joshua Fit the Battle of Jericho" and "Deep River" are very familiar. Others are not so well known, but every bit as moving. "Listen to the Lambs" and "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child" are down right heart-wrenching. Several others, such as "There is a Balm in Gilead", "Everytime I Feel the Spirit", and -- one of my new favorites -- "Ain't Got Time to Die", send an upbeat, encouraging message. "Steal Away" and "Wade in the Water" are songs which had double meanings for fugitives headed for freedom on the Underground Railroad.The yearning for freedom is present in every song on the disc, but especially pronounced in "Oh Freedom".

File:Brooklyn Museum - A Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves - Eastman Johnson - overall.jpg
Ride for Liberty -- The Fugitive Slaves, by Eastman Johnson
image credit
After a while the singing commenced, to the evident delight of all they sung, some laughed, and some cried, and some clapped hands, or shook hands rejoicingly with each other, as if they had fairly gained the other side of the river.Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom's Cabin

Listen to samples HERE.