Columnist Tolley M. Jones: Ujima — I Be Your Water

By TOLLEY M. JONES

Published: 09-14-2023 2:14 PM

Music has been a deeply integral part of the Black American experience since the first African set stolen foot on hostile and punishing American soil. It connected kidnapped Africans to the families and cultures from which and from whom they were permanently separated. Music gave enslaved Blacks a voice to express the agony of their grief, the depth of their rage, and in powerfully brilliant and organized defiance, plot revenge and escape.

Enslaved Blacks used music to cloak their continued observance of their own African religions and beliefs within the white-sanctioned Christian imagery and messaging, and encoded resistance and sustained confidence in ultimate freedom using the very Biblical messages white enslavers used to attempt to legitimize their barbarism.

Slave spirituals were the poignant and potent community binding together millions of enslaved Blacks stolen from many homelands and caged together without regard for culture, family, or the human need for belonging. These songs were composed by enslaved Blacks and were carried in their hearts from plantation to plantation over generations, and are a significant reason why Black Americans today have a culture despite having fractured and scattered ancestry that is for the most part unknown to us due to deliberate obliteration of our history.

Western Massachusetts is an isolating and often lonely place for Blacks to live. It is a predominantly white area, and by definition this means that the white people living here are accustomed to centering resources, viewpoints, and experiences around themselves and their comfort zone. Black people who live here are left adrift and without a community that feels like home. Schools and jobs have few (if any) Black teachers or administrators, and Black people in the area are frequently tasked with the burden of being considered the integrating factor in spaces while white people fill up those spaces without really understanding how that feels to a Black person.

The need for community is significant to the health and well-being of Black people in these white spaces, but that very demographic imbalance makes it nearly impossible for us to create and sustain spaces that are for us.

Evelyn Harris, a Grammy-nominated musician formerly of Sweet Honey in the Rock, says of this dilemma, “It’s not easy and it’s just not out there … you really have to look for it and know where to look for it. If you are not connected with a Black church you aren’t going to find a crux of Black people to interact with because that’s where they are … You will be in the minority in this area and you will walk into the door knowing that. Look for what you want, and if it isn’t there, somehow create it for your Black children … they deserve it.”

When asked what she misses when she thinks back to growing up in Richmond, Virginia in the 1950s and ’60s, compared to living in the whiteness of western Massachusetts, she laments, “I miss the understanding that Black people have for each other. I’m tired of explaining to white people. I don’t like talking about my hair to white people. I want to be around people who already know something about me that is innate that I don’t have to explain. At 73, I am tired of explaining. I just want some comfort and some people around me who don’t need an explanation for why I say or do what I do.”

With this in mind, Harris is continuing her history of addressing inequity and Black strength with music. She has started a new BIPOC-centered (Black, Indigenous, people of color) music collective at the Northampton Community Music Center, with a focused goal of providing a space for BIPOC people in western Mass. to gather, sing, find strength and community, and to harness our power.

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This new group, Ujima Singers, will sing Black spirituals that tie us to our ancestors, protest songs that remind us of our strength, and other Black music across genres that are all woven into the powerful ancestral cloth that connects Black Americans.

Ujima means collective unity. Evelyn intentionally chose this as the name for the group.

“I wanted it to be a word that implied collective energy. Black Americans in western Massachusetts are often isolated and quietly closeted. In this case you can be loud, you can be bold, you can stretch, and you can be an advocate right in front. You can bring this energy from the group back to your home, to the community. You can say, ‘I remember when I sang out and I remember how that felt. And these people are behind me and with me.’”

Evelyn has a message for local BIPOC: “This is where you can come, this is where you will be welcomed, and you might be the only one [in other spaces] but I just can’t settle for that this time. I need a majority of BIPOC people in the room with me this time, and I feel badly when I think of that because it means that if they don’t come, the choir isn’t going to happen.”

If you are a BIPOC and would like to “give power to the sound of your own voice” while connecting with other BIPOCs in the area, you can come to a free first session of the Ujima Singers directed by Harris on Monday, Sept. 18 at 5:30 at the Community Music Center, 139 South St. in Northampton. For more information, call 413-585-0001. A link for registration information for Ujima Singers can be found online at www.ncmc.net/programs/ujima-singers.

Tolley M. Jones lives in Easthampton. She writes a monthly column and can be reached at columnist@gazettenet.com.

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