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poetry “Sitting Around Singing Kumbaya”

"Come by here": Listen as the Maine-based poet Arielle Greenberg takes you to the radical roots , the heritage and legacy of the oft-maligned song, Kumbaya.

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“Sitting Around Singing Kumbaya”

By Arielle Greenberg

As I was putting the baby down for his nap today, singing him Kumbaya—

which is rumored to be a Gulla phrase meaning “come over”—

the Gulla people descendents of West Africans enslaved and brought to this country—

having come over and not having wanted to come over—

I thought about how people use the phrase “sitting around singing Kumbaya”

to mean something you would never want to be caught doing—

something stupid and idealistic and futile—

the song Kumbaya whose origin and meaning is still debated and partially erased—

I think of sand and sea here, history under sand and lost at sea—

but one thing that is known is that Kumbaya is a song well-meaning white folk revivalists

“borrowed” from the Gullah people—

“borrowed” a word which, when used by well-meaning white folks, often means “stolen”—

from the Gullah whose descendants had stayed

on the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia

and kept a way of life, kept a language, kept their ways on the islands off the mainland—

kept a way with walking sticks and with rice and with stories—

with language that is English and Creole and Sierra Leone Krio—

the Gullah people who sang a spiritual about trouble in mind, trouble in mind

called “Kumbaya” that was perhaps a plea to God to pay attention and come over here, Lord

a song which was first “caught” by a white guy—

a former English professor, a folklore buff—

(someone kind of like me, really, I think, putting the baby to sleep—)

a white man who recorded the song, trying to keep it for history and culture—

but maybe this is a kind of stealing, too—

a kind of enslaving—

how “well meaning” often means “fucked up”

and is most often associated with liberal white folks like me—

if my meaning is even well at all, which I sometimes doubt—

and how the white folk revivalists, many of whom did after all march with Dr. King

and with union workers and got arrested and got blacklisted—

brought the song out off the islands and into the world—

and Kumbaya became a song sung at Civil Rights marches—

and later sung at summer camps,

probably introduced by well-meaning white folk hippie camp counselors who had marched—

so that now the folk song, the spiritual Kumbaya—

whose meaning is disputed but maybe means “come by here”—

is associated with little children and hippies—

and thus thought of as weak-minded and boring and worthy of ridicule—

because we live in a culture where things associated with children are thought of as idiotic—

so that “sitting around singing Kumbaya” is a shorthand meaning

wasting our time or not getting done what needs to get done—

or something absolutely inane and powerless—

in which people are required to compromise or find common ground

so that now the phrase “singing Kumbaya,” a song once sung for peace and justice,

is used to steal the power of people who work for peace and justice—

how U.S. Ambassador John Bolton said sarcastically that he was surprised that a farewell dinner for then-United Nations president Kofi Annan did not end in the singing of Kumbaya—

and Republicans said that Barack Obama, our first black president,

was maybe just singing Kumbaya with his ideas for massive health care reform—

but during his election Obama himself said,

“The politics of hope is not about holding hands and singing, ‘Kumbaya”—

and I think about the Gullah people keeping their culture through and despite and after

years of forced enslavement, and displacement, and colonization—

and singing, according to the various interpretations of the meaning of the song Kumbaya—

 

“come over here to this place where we keep what is ours—

bear witness to it, how we have kept it alive”—

or, “come over here and stand with us, if you mean so well”—

or, singing to God, “do not forsake us, we who are suffering so mightily”—

Kumbaya, a song of peace and justice, a song to be sung in the streets—

and then I think, as I put the baby to sleep, singing Kumbaya,

about how I think sitting around singing Kumbaya—

singing, in a circle, in a group, the open, arousing song of former slaves in a language

no one can quite trace, a language risen hot fire from ashes of all that was stolen—

is perhaps one of the most notable and useful things I can think of doing—

and that even the song being sung by children at summer camp

or well-meaning white folks in coffee houses is a lot less stupid than making war—

“making war” itself a phrase associated with hippies

as if one could simply choose instead to “make love”—

an idea, a slogan which seems to have fallen so far out of fashion—

so I am aware that I myself sound like a hippie, really am basically just a hippie—

if “just” a hippie means someone who, yes, would rather see children run barefoot in grass

and languages invented and songs sung than wars mongered—

that I am someone, well-meaning or not,

who wants to hold hands and sing Kumbaya in a circle—

that singing anything in a circle of folks, really, as a group, is all I want from this life—

Arielle Greenberg’s poetry collections are Come Along with Me to the Pasture Now (in which this poem will appear; forthcoming 2019), SliceMy Kafka Century and Given. She’s also the writer of the creative nonfiction book Locally Made Panties, the transgenre chapbooks Shake Her and Fa(r)ther Down, and co-author, with Rachel Zucker, of Home/Birth: A Poemic. She has co-edited three anthologies, including Gurlesque, forthcoming in an expanded digital edition co-edited with Becca KlaverArielle’s poems and essays have been featured in Best American Poetry, Labor Day: True Birth Stories by Today’s Best Women Writers and The Racial Imaginary, among other anthologies; she wrote a column on contemporary poetics for the American Poetry Review, and edits a series of essays called (K)ink: Writing While Deviant for The Rumpus. A former tenured professor in poetry at Columbia College Chicago, she lives in Maine, where she works and teaches in the community.