In the 1960’s, a group of college students prepared for the Civil Rights campaign. There had already been violence against them. They knew that some of them might not return. They had called their families. This group had decided to stay. In their darkest hour, they united by singing an invocation, a Spiritual from the Gullah people. The powerful invocation “Come by here” translates to “Kum-ba-ya”.
Many have incorrectly adopted the song for a “feel good” moment. Today, people often laugh and sneer at these “feel good” gatherings of people coming together, setting aside their differences, only to sing a nonsense word and get nothing done. The song has been taken out of its cultural and spiritual context, meaning has been lost, and the power has been taken out of the song.
However, at its origin, this song is an invocation: “Come by Here, Lord.” Kumbaya was not sung in good times, but in dark times, in desperate times, in times of need. The Gullah are the descendants of the African slaves living on the coastal plains of South Carolina and Georgia. In the Gullah tradition and during the Civil Rights Movement, this powerful chant is sung with conviction and intention to invoke a greater power into the dark spaces of our lives … calling in Spirit, God, Love, … whatever it is that you believe, to come and touch those places and make them better.
Listen to the Story in this Podcast Show
“The Power of Kumbaya” is part of my set of stories that I perform, called Legacy of Love.
The seed for this story is from Ysaye Barnwell’s workshop, Building a Vocal Community. This workshop explores the songs of the African American oral tradition from African chants, Spirituals, Gospel, and songs of the Civil Rights Movement. As a non-singer, I learned that everyone can sing. I also experienced the power of singing together to create community. When songs unite a movement with the solidarity of hearts, minds, and voices, people can’t help but stop to listen.
We can reclaim the power of invocation with our voices, in our lives, and for our united communities. We can put the power back in the song, Kumbaya.
Listen to my prior podcast interview to hear Ysaye Barnwell tell her version of this story and sing Kumbaya: Episode 4: Building a Vocal Community (Ysaye Barnwell).
Excerpt of Vincent Harding interviewed by Krista Tippett, “You’ll Never Hear Kumbaya the Same Way Again.”
“A Long Road From ‘Come by here’ to ‘Kumbaya’, New York Times article.
Freedom Summer Project, PBS.
Freedom Summer, Wikipedia.
The Power in Vocal Communities, Ysaye Barnwell, TEDx.