Cradle to Prison Pipeline Fisk University Jubilee Singers Negro Spirituals

Turning Darkness Into Day (Fisk University Jubilee Day, 2010)

Read The Full Transcript of Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan Simpson’s Jubilee Day Address, ” Turning Darkness Into Day”

In October, The Rev. Dr. Emma Jordan-Simpson(’85), Executive Director for Children’s Defense Fund-New York, was Fisk’s Jubilee Day Speaker. Due to the overwhelming response and inquiry, the University has obtained permission from Dr. Simpson to repost the transcript of her address, “Turning Darkness Into Day.” 

While at Fisk as a student, Simpson was a member of the Jubilee Singers for three of her four undergraduate years. “I chose Fisk for lots of reasons, but mostly because I fell in love with the powerful theology of the Negro Spirituals,” Simpson said. “I am still taken by the faith of these songs..Especially now as my work at the Children’s Defense Fund focuses more and more on sounding the alarm about America’s cradle to prison pipeline crisis, these songs continue to provide clarity of mission for me.”

Below is Simpson’s address, “Turning Darkness Into Day,” from Jubilee Day 2010:

Turning Darkness Into Day

I often reminisce with the members of my class about what life was like while we were students here at Fisk.  Earlier this year, Dr. Paul Kwami referred to those years – 1981 – 1985 as the “dark years.”  Sure – we were young and stupid and they were, indeed, years of incredible challenge:

 We were out on the streets singing and collecting money in cans;

  • We endured weeks at a time with no heat and no hot water in the dorms;
  • Some of my classmates, who will remain nameless, stood in line in front of the president’s house dressed in bathrobes and slippers waiting for permission to take a shower;
  • Resources were cut all over the place – they even threatened to end the Jubilee Singers program in mid-year;
  • And, they did eliminate the position for the Dean of this Chapel.  That’s how students got stuck with me!

They were years of challenge and we acknowledge that. But, for better or worse, learning to “face down the challenge of the day” is a critical part of the Fisk Experience.  (Admittedly, we’d like less of some challenges….)  Yet what we endured and continue to endure could never compare to the experiences of those who started this vision – who deeply desired as John Work wrote in the second and third verse of our alma mater – that there would be an institution pulling Ethiopia’s children from North, East, South and West to inspire them – and then sending them back out into the world, carrying the charge to “Go, turn darkness into day.”

That’s a heavy charge and commission:  to turn darkness into day.  There is something about this experience that does shape and form within us vision, perspective and tools to go out into the world’s wildernesses – with that charge: go and turn darkness into day. 

I did not come to preach a sermon, but let me tell you a little story found in the bible, Genesis (21: 14 – 20) of Abraham and Sarah.  Most of us know their story, but we do not acknowledge that in the shadow of their great story of faith is an understory of injustice and struggle.  And, we will never really understand the power of this story, or the power of the American Dream until we wrestle with and acknowledge the under stories – the places where darkness is still waiting for the light of day.

We call Abraham the Father of Faith.  Sarah, his wife, wanted nothing more in life than to have her own child. Yet, she reached the age well beyond maturity and she had no children. When she heard that God would still give her one, she laughed – and sure enough, she bore Isaac! 

However, under that story of joyous laughter and faith is the story of Hagar and Ishmael.

Hagar was Sarah’s slave. Because Sarah could not wait for God’s promises to her to be fulfilled, she gave Hagar to Abraham so that Abraham could produce a son. However, after Isaac was born – Hagar and Ishmael were thrown away. And one of the last, poignant visions we see of Hagar and Ishmael counters the story of laughter and joy and Abraham and Sarah going off to become the father and mother of great nations.  It’s the vision of Hagar – now left a single mother, unemployed (now that she no longer even has the job of slave!), poor, and under-resourced and thrust into the dark wilderness with her teenage son, her boy child, with only enough food and water to last them a short while – certainly not long enough to make it through.

There are other sides to Power’s story of triumph!  These songs of our legacy are about the other side of the story.  They are about the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of people who have been left out, who were thrown away.  These songs tell how some people prospered on the backs of others, but they also declare that God would have the last word.  Our ancestors understood the futility of a half story –

Of bibles meant for slaves with all of the passages about freedom and liberation removed.

  • Of sermons preached to slaves about, obey – but never about “rise up.”
  • Of stories about God that did not take into account that of all that God is — God is the God of Justice.
I got shoes, you got shoes, all God’s children got shoes.
When we get to heaven, we’re gonna put on our shoes,
we’re going to walk all over God’s heaven.
But — but – everybody talking about heaven Ain’t going there!

Abraham and Sarah have a promise from God but decided not to wait for God’s promises to be fulfilled in God’s time.  They saw Hagar as a means to an end.  They decided that they were going to take matters into their own hands and – they use Hagar, abuse Hagar – and then when Sarah finally gives birth — they throw Hagar and her child away.

In the end, Abraham and Sarah receive their blessing. So does Hagar and her child.  If told together, the stories could be a powerful reminder to generations to come not to use, abuse and throw people away.  If told together, these stories could form an amazing testimony that demonstrates just how faithful God is to deliver on the promises that God has made to everybody.

However, these stories are rarely, if ever, told together. 

Just like we often do not tell the story of America in a way that honors the stories of the slaves who built this country — because people do not want to be reminded of this side of the story.  And, we – standing in their footsteps, sitting on their shoulders and benefitting from their sacrifices – we do not want to be reminded of “those slavery days, and especially not those slave songs.” 

We want an upbeat story, a positive story.  But the upbeat, positive story of Abraham and Sarah is shallow at best, without Hagar and Ishmael.  And, America’s story means very little without our understanding how and why these songs came to be.

Hagar’s story is reminiscent of our sojourn in this country:  some people came over, took the land from the people who were already here – and in the course of claiming and living out what they believed to be their “destiny,” their promise, God’s desire for them to live in a land that would be free –

They use African people, and enslave them to support a vision of life that was dependent upon slave labor;

  • They create a system that abuses those who are enslaved;
  • And then, when they get what they want, they throw these people away.

Look around – our different colors, shades and hues — beautiful as we are – our different colors, shades and hues remind us of Hagar’s understory. 

And that today, our sons, like Ishmael, are often more familiar with a weapon than they are with a father’s love or with a community that won’t throw him away, is but one indication of just how deep and fractured this story has become and how complicit we have become in our own oppression.   

Yet, we’ve got a charge to “Go and Turn Darkness Into Day.”

While we have a Black president and the top of this country’s ranks of the wealthy swells with a few more black media personalities, actors, and athletes,  – the bottom rung of America grows poorer, and black and browner and angrier every year.

The dark underside of the American dream is a nightmare for the children of the children of the children of the children of slaves, and we have the nerve to say that because we now have a black president, we are living in a post-racial society – a society where race no longer matters and institutions like Fisk and historically black colleges are irrelevant.  Race is not irrelevant when:

  • Every 4 seconds a black public school student is suspended.*
  • Every 39 seconds a black high school student drops out.*
  • Every minute a black child is arrested.
  • Every minute a black baby is born to an unmarried mother.
  • Every 2 minutes a black baby is born into poverty.
  • Every 3 minutes a black child is abused or neglected.
  • Every 4 minutes a black baby is born without health insurance.
  • Every 6 minutes a black baby is born at low birth weight.
  • Every 14 minutes a black child is arrested for drug and violent crimes.
  • Every hour a black baby dies before his or her first birthday.
  • Every 6 hours a black child or teen is killed by a firearm.
  • Every day a black child dies of abuse or neglect.
  • Every 2 days a black child or teen commits suicide.

* Based on calculations per school day (180 days of seven hours each) – Children’s Defense Fund

Race is not irrelevant when –

  • A Black boy born in 2001 has a 1 in 3 chance of going to prison in his lifetime; a black girl born the same year has a 1 in 17 chance;
  • Nationally, black juveniles are about 4 times as likely to be incarcerated as their white peers.  In NYC, a black child is 32 times more likely to be incarcerated than a white child.
    • Only 50,000 black males earn a bachelor’s degree each year, but an estimated 1 in 3 black men ages 20 – 29 is under correctional supervision or control.  About 846,000 black males were incarcerated in state, federal and local jails at mid-year 2008. 
    • And in 2010 – there are more African American males ages 20 – 34 without a high school diploma or GED behind bars than there are black males employed in this whole country.

How do we turn darkness into day? 

It should not be enough that we can point to a list of

  • black doctors
  • black educators, scientists, lawyers and judges
  • black mayors, congress people, senators, governors, a black President
  • black writers and actors, directors and producers
  • black wealthy people –

 …because there is still an ever present, insidious understory of darkness, and injustice.  There is still an incredible under story of poverty and lack in the midst of great prosperity. 

God save us – you and I — the children of Hagar, and those who have been given the gift of this incredible legacy and must accept the charge to turn darkness into day – if we choose instead to be drunk with the wine of the world, content with a lists of black firsts, a few magazine cover stories – when what God intends is that we should all be free! 

No more auction block for me
No more, no more
No more auction block for me
Many thousand gone.

Slavery has not ended in America.  The auction block has not been put away.  It just looks different.  It takes on a new, more powerful form and institutes a more insidious form of oppression – because it is so easy for us – oppressors and oppressed – to look the other way. 

This new slavery still carries some of the same marks as the old slavery:

In the old slavery, all slaves were poor, had nothing, and owned nothing.  Pervasive poverty underscores the new slavery — more than 1 in 3 black children in this country lives under the poverty line.

  • In the old slavery, there was no such thing as medical care.  Inadequate access to health coverage drives this new slavery – 1 in 9 black children have no health coverage even after health reform.
  • In the old slavery, it was a crime to teach blacks to read.  In this new slavery, black and Hispanic children routinely show up to kindergarten lagging behind their white peers because we do not invest in early education. When 85% of black fourth graders cannot read at grade level, and 88% of black fourth graders cannot do math at grade level, we have doomed them to be the slaves of a new economy which will have no “good” use for them.

So many have said it before – Martin Luther King, Jr.; Marian Wright Edelman — this country will never be America until it is America for everyone.  America has to reconcile the under stories it has helped to write.  And if we can learn anything from our mothers and fathers who sang these songs, it is this:  God will not suffer half a story.

God is not imprisoned in some ivory tower.  These songs that our ancestors have gifted to us remind us that, even now, God is not chained to some huge contemporary praise cathedral or center disconnected from the pain of our communities.  God abides in our struggles and God works to turn darkness into day.  And, God invites us with every breath to join God in that work.

There is a light shining in the heaven for me
There is a light shining for me.
O, way over yonder in the heaven, there is a light shining for me.
I may have to pray so hard and bow so low, but there is a light shining in heaven for me.

The songs remind us that there will be — there will be God’s Justice:

Come down, come down, my Lord, come down.
My Lord is writing all the time.
And take me up to wear a crown, my Lord is writing all the time!
Oh, He sees all you do – and He hears all you say.
My Lord is writing all the time.
When I was down in Egypt land
My lord is writing all the time.
I heard some talk of the Promised Land
My lord is writing all the time
Oh, He sees all you do – and He hears all you say,
My Lord is writing all the time.

And God will have the last word.

 Oh, the rocks and the mountains shall all flee away,
And you shall have a new hiding place that day.
Brother, brother give up your heart to God,
And you shall have a new hiding place that day.

God has a plan for America’s dark places and the sons and daughters of Fisk have a charge in that plan, and our responsibility has always been – because of how we were born – to go and turn darkness into day.  We can enter into partnership with God.  We come to Fisk to be inspired and then, equipped to go out again, to turn darkness into day.  

We can go out and start free after school and Saturday programs for children but we can also speak truth to power about this country’s broken and inequitable educational system and its policies.

We can go out and open a community based mental health clinic but we can also speak truth to power about the 15,000 children in this country who are incarcerated in juvenile detention facilities, some as young as 7 years old, solely because mental health services are not available in their communities.

Stay in the field
Stay in the field, O Warriors
Stay in the field –
Till the war is ended.

When our ancestors lifted these words, they were engaging in subversive and revolutionary conversation.  Those in power heard these words and thought one thing.  But those who sang them meant something altogether different.  They were encouraging each other not to leave the road that would lead to freedom. Don’t waver. Don’t get sidetracked. Do not leave the road that leads to freedom.

Freedom does not come from storing up information and knowledge for your own benefit and gain.  Freedom for you, freedom for this country – freedom for all of us comes from what you do with what you know. 

 Let’s turn darkness into day.

 Let’s subvert the whole world order.

Here’s a blessing to help us do that…  (Adapted from the Franciscan Blessing)

May God bless you with discomfort at easy answers, half-truths,
at half-stories and superficial relationships,
So that you may question and live deep within your heart.
May God bless you with anger at injustice, oppression and exploitation of people,
So that you may work for justice, freedom and peace.
May God bless you with tears shed for those who suffer from pain,
rejection, starvation and war –
So that you may reach out your hand to comfort them and turn their pain into joy.
And may God bless you with enough foolishness to believe 
that you can really make a difference in this world.
May God bless you to believe that it is on you – it is on you — to turn the world “right side-up.”
May God bless you to write with your life a more powerful 
and compassionate letter to the future than the one you received.
May God bless you to be bold, to honor your race,
to honor your legacy and to be unafraid to walk in the dark places with songs of light, 
with songs of struggle, with songs of mourning that turn into victory – with songs of power –
So that you can do what others claim cannot be done,
and what millions of children are waiting on you to do.

By avoiceinramah

Following The Way. Wife, Mom, Pastor, RevSisterGirlfriend, Advocate. Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman. I believe another world is possible.

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