January 20, 2020 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day
Wellesley’s interest was centered this week on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Some celebrated at the annual World of Wellesley breakfast, getting up early on a day off to make sure the civil rights leader is not forgotten on their watch. Some were content to give the good reverend a nod in passing on their way to a long weekend on the ski slopes. Others posted an amen on Facebook to the ideal of racial equality, and left it at that.
Dr. Tina Opie, Associate Professor of Management at Babson College and a panelist at the breakfast, is never content to let anything be left at that. As some people show up at events like this out of obligation, Opie shows up to get some kind of rumpus going. A panel that Opie is on is never a dull panel.
After the The Kuumba Singers of Harvard sang Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, often referred to as the Black national anthem, Opie asked for a show of hands of those in the crowd who sang along. A smattering of audience members raised their hands. That was far from good enough for her. “Don’t come to this breakfast year after year without learning the song,” Opie scolded. “Learn the song.”
I have low hopes for that likelihood. I’ve been belting out songs of praise in church all my life, but without a hymnal to crib off of, I’m not going to make it much farther than the first few bars of How Great Thou Art. My singing is far from great art, and my memory is nothing of note. So unless WOW President Michelle Chalmers prints out the lyrics for each table, or has them flashed up on a screen, modern church style, I predict most of the crowd will remain silent.
I actually thought we were supposed to keep quiet as the amazing Kuumba Singers did their thing. Why should we as a group drown out those talented voices? I’ve always approached their part of the breakfast program as more concert in nature, rather than an invitation to join right in. I considered my silence respectful.
Don’t think I haven’t ruled out the possibility of a cultural disconnect at work here. Opie demands a rumpus, she wants to see active participation. I draw inward, contemplating the moment. That Kuumba Singer must be a senior by now, I muse. Oh, there’s the one who can bottom out his low notes straight to the basement. I’m so glad he’s back. The experience washes over me, and I feel renewed. My show of appreciation: applause.
In the predominately white churches I’ve always attended, first Catholic, now Congregational, a certain formality prevails. The priest or reverend preaches from the pulpit, the parishioners listen from the pews. There’s not often an “amen” when certain truths hit home. Someone might let out a soft and quick, “Hmm.” We sing at certain times, and listen to the choir at other times.
Possibly, in other forums, my silence-is-golden point of view could appear as a lack of engagement. When I hear the phrase, “pump up the volume,” I look around for something other than me to get loud. I’m just going to sit quietly over here, thank you very much.
But silence can be misconstrued. Silence can look like agreement in volatile situations. Sometimes, silence can look like judgement. In its worst forms, silence can be deadly. History will back me up on that.
At the next MLK breakfast I attend, I’ll bring more than my appetite. I’ll bring the lyrics printed out to Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. If we’re at the same table, I’ve got you covered. Between now and then, I’m going to start practicing my loudness, maybe shout out an “amen” in church. Maybe pump up the volume somewhere without even being asked.
Like Max in the famous children’s book, I think it’s time to “Let the wild rumpus start!”