Speaking of Faith with Krista Tippett
Friday, June 19, 2009, 4:03 PM
Joe Carter and the Legacy of the African-American Spiritual
I once met an American tourist who went to Siberia — and was peppered with questions about Joe Carter. Joe had made one of his riveting educational presentations about the African-American spiritual there, and had indelibly impressed his audience. His would forever be the glorious face they put on all people and things American. Joe's presence — his voice, his spirit, and his life — made the world a more generous place.
And I love hearing Joe's voice and sending it out into the world again — resurrection by radio. This program was special from the first. We sat in a spacious chamber where orchestras record — Joe and his pianist and I. And as we talked about the spirituals, Joe periodically stood up and sang to illustrate his points. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, and that enjoyment is audible in the final production.
It was revelatory to take this staple of American culture, as the spiritual has become — musical lines we can sing without thinking — and ask questions of it. It was painful to be reminded, foundationally, that this music had its genesis in slavery. Anonymous bards authored the body of work of some 5,000 songs that we know as the spiritual. Each song typically expresses a single sentiment or message, often born of grief.
These melodies and words, as Joe helped me understand, convey a sophisticated theology of suffering. It is a theology that leans into suffering — and in surrender, transforms and rises above it, if only in moments. Such moments are nurturing and sustaining. Human beings across the world have experienced this directly through hearing and singing the spirituals, generations later and in radically different contexts.
"The thing we find," Joe said, "is that in the midst of all of the most horrible pain, some of these powerful individuals lived transcendent, shining lives. They were able to be loving and forgiving in the midst of it all. Mammy was taking care of master's baby. She could have smothered that child. But she loved the child like it was her own child, because there was something in her faith that said, 'You're supposed to be loving, you're supposed to be kind, you're supposed to be forgiving — and there's no excuse if you're not…' The ancestors knew that the worst kind of bondage is that which takes place on the inside. And when we look back to the slavery days we were bound, but it was the master who was really the slave. And I think some of us understand that now."
I asked Joe whether he — himself a grandson of slaves — couldn't reasonably begrudge the way in which white Americans have appropriated the spiritual, embraced it as their own. But that question was mine, not his. In Siberia and Africa and Wales, he says, these songs speak directly to the human will to survive precisely when the worst has happened. They have become symbolic of a universal yearning for freedom — "that part of us all which says, 'I will not be defeated.'" We rebroadcast this hour in celebration of Joe Carter's gifts of wisdom and music that echo vitally beyond his death.
I Recommend Reading:
The Books of American Negro Spirituals
by James Weldon Johnson
Joe Carter brought a battered, treasured early volume of this work with him to our interview. There is a 2002 combined volume of the two seminal collections of sheet music, history, and commentary that Johnson published in 1925 and 1926. They remain among the most significant reference resources ever compiled on this musical genre. Johnson's prefaces are elegant and moving. Chapters are devoted to the most significant known spirituals. "As the years go by and I understand more about this music and its origin," Johnson writes, "the miracle of its production strikes me with increasing wonder."
Also, the Listening Room on our companion site features full-length, downloadable tracks of Joe Carter's live performances in our studio, and recordings of these spirituals by other renowned artists such as Mahalia Jackson and the Fisk Jubilee Singers.
Thursday, June 4, 2009, 5:27 PM
Brother Thây: A Radio Pilgrimage with Thich Nhat Hanh
Thich Nhat Hanh first came to the world's attention in the 1960s during the war in his native Vietnam. He forsook monastic isolation to care for the victims of that war and to work for reconciliation among all the warring parties. He called this "engaged Buddhism." Martin Luther King Jr. nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, and he led the Buddhist delegation to the 1969 Paris Peace Talks.
This is one of the gentlest programs we've created, and one of the most far-reaching and practical in its effect — if e-mail correspondence is taken as a guide. I hope that you find courage, as I do every time I listen with fresh ears, in this program's reflections on spiritual "technologies" for lived compassion — even in the face of wars of terror and the everyday anger and fears inside us.
The morning of our conversation, I listened to Thich Nhat Hanh deliver a three-hour meditation and teaching. He sat on a stage before hundreds of people. He spoke first to the children and then to the adults. A small, radiant figure in his seventies, the intensity of his teaching didn't flag; but I saw him grow physically tired. Our interview was to take place late that afternoon. To "interview" this man felt presumptuous. He is one of the softest-spoken personalities I have ever met and one of the most powerful. His power is physically palpable, but it is not about physical strength. It is a vigor of presence.
I realize as I write that I'm struggling unsuccessfully to describe a quality about this man — his holiness, for lack of a better word, which in fact eludes the neutral terms journalism calls for. I'm inclined to look at religious traditions as bearers of critical questions and necessary insights.
As we create Speaking of Faith, I'm always walking a line — sometimes dancing back and forth across it — between being a journalist and being a spiritually curious person. Thich Nhat Hanh, Brother Thây, is a teacher of the first order — a teacher of life as well as thought — and it is hard to be in his presence and not feel oneself a student. Interviewing him, I settled into that part of the journalistic enterprise that is about opening oneself up to learning.
Thich Nhat Hanh combines spiritual ideals with earthy realities. He takes the Buddhist commitment to "mindfulness" out of the realm of ritual, and transposes it to everyday acts — washing dishes, walking, being with one's children. As he teaches it, the basic act of focusing on one's breath, of feeling the mind move back into the body, is immediately effective. A change occurs, an instant restoration, a kind of recollection of self. But this is a recollection that happens only one moment at a time. It is an exacting, rewarding discipline of living in the present, which we attempt in our culture with so many methods both to achieve and avoid.
Actor and Presbyterian minister, Linda Loving, once used a compelling phrase in conversation with me: "the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity." She was referring to the writings of Julian of Norwich, a mystic whose observations and revelations have endured across centuries. I suspect that Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings, embodied in his terse poetry and compact books of meditation, will also endure over time. His essential messages are so beautifully simple on some level — like his basic premise, taken from the heart of Buddhism, that if we face the suffering in ourselves, we will become compassionate towards the suffering of others and we will be able to break cycles of violence in the world.
But Brother Thây isn't about beautiful ideas. Precisely because of all he has lived through — the violence he witnessed and suffered in his native Vietnam — his gentleness has a profound authority. Over a long lifetime he has refined and embodied practical spiritual technologies for living simply and humbly with complexity.
It is a miracle — a testament to "the miracle of mindfulness" — that Thich Nhat Hanh emerges from his experiences proclaiming that we must all aspire to feel "fresh, solid, and free." For an afternoon, in his presence, I felt that way too.
I Recommend Reading:
The Long Road Turns to Joy: A Guide to Walking Meditation
by Thich Nhat Hanh
I discovered this tiny book while creating this program. Walking meditation is part of Thich Nhat Hanh's life at Plum Village in France and at every retreat he conducts. This tiny book is in fact a brief, inviting introduction to his way of being in the world. It consists of short meditations, poems, and engaging photographs of Thây with his community and students. He is often holding the hand of a child. It embodies the simplicity, humility, and wonder of Thich Nhat Hanh's teachings.
"Walking Meditation with
Thich Nhat Hanh"
During a previous airing of this program, one of our producers happened upon Tess Gallagher's delightful book of poems, Dear Ghosts, and discovered a poem about Gallagher's experience with Brother Thây. She elegantly puts into verse her experience of practicing mindfulness while at Deer Park Monastery.
Monday, May 4, 2009, 11:26 AM
Planting the Future with Wangari Maathai
Many of my interviews are conducted over long distances, by way of a clear channel communications miracle called an ISDN line. People are often surprised to hear this, because these weekly conversations about "religion, meaning, ethics, and ideas" are singularly intimate. But I have come to enjoy the discipline of a long-distance circuit. I can close my eyes and listen deeply. I encounter my guests — as my listeners do — solely by way of the human voice.
Wangari Maathai has a wonderful voice and an infectious whole-body laugh. You will even hear her sing if you listen to the end of this hour. But I am glad I met her in person, because her physical presence is remarkable. She is a 68-year-old force of nature, with a beautiful face and flashing black eyes. She is palpably gracious but rather subdued until she starts speaking about her work. Then, sitting across from her, it is not hard to imagine that this woman has stood up to a dictator and won, and that she has fought off encroaching desert by leading thousands of people to plant 45 million trees.
Wangari Maathai was born in colonial Africa in 1940. She excelled in science and trained as a biologist. She became the first woman in Central Africa to earn a Ph.D. and the first woman to chair a department at the University of Nairobi. In the mid-1970s, she started planting trees with rural Kenyan women who were feeling the consequences of soil erosion and deforestation in their daily lives. They walked far distances for water, had too little firewood and fodder for animals, and lacked nutritious food and sources of income. Planting trees was both a simple response to their crisis and a dramatically effective one. It restored a simple link that had been broken between human beings and the land on which they live — the kind of link that we often take for granted until, as Maathai says, we move away from the world we know — spatially, economically, or spiritually. For several years before her environmental work began, Wangari Maathai had been away from Kenya. When she returned, she saw with fresh eyes that "the earth was naked. For me, the mission was to try to cover it with green."
For a quarter century Wangari Maathai and the women of her Green Belt Movement improbably faced off powerful economic forces and Kenya's tyrannical ruler, Daniel arap Moi. She was beaten and imprisoned. Nevertheless, the movement spread to 600 communities across Kenya and into 20 countries. After Moi's fall from power in 2002, Wangari Maathai was elected to her country's parliament with 98 percent of the vote.
My curiosity, of course, always drives towards the spiritual and ethical questions and convictions that drive human action. In the course of this conversation, Wangari Maathai describes the faith behind her ecological passion — a lively fusion of Christianity, real world encounters with good and evil, and the ancestral Kikuyu traditions of Kenya's central highlands. She grew up there, schooled by Catholic missionaries, and she remains a practicing Catholic to this day. But life has taught her to value anew the Kikuyu culture of her family's ancestry. The Kikuyu traditionally worshipped under trees and honored Mount Kenya — Africa's second highest mountain — as the place where God resides. That mountain, as Wangari Maathai only later understood scientifically, is the source of most of Kenya's rivers. And the fig trees considered most sacred by the Kikuyu — those it was impermissible to cut down — had the deepest roots, bringing water from deep below the earth to the surface. Climate change has created a volatile ecology across the Horn of Africa, and this is compounded by the fact that those trees have been cut away systematically for decades, along with millions of others, by colonial Christians as well as African industrialists.
We in the West are in the process of relearning something that Wangari Maathai, from the vantage point of Africa, has known all along: ecology is a matter of life and death, peace and war. In awarding her the Nobel Peace prize, the Norwegian Nobel committee noted that "when we analyze local conflicts, we tend to focus on their ethnic and religious aspects. But it is often the underlying ecological circumstances that bring the more readily visible factors to the flashpoint." In places as far flung as the Sudan, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti and the Himalayas, deforestation, encroaching desert, and soil erosion are among the present root causes of civil unrest and war. Wangari Maathai has cited a history of inequitable distribution of natural resources, especially land, as a key trigger in last-year's Kenyan post-election violence.
As our conversation drew to a close, I asked Wangari Maathai a religious question I rarely pose directly, because it is so intimate and so difficult to answer directly. I asked her, rather baldly, to tell me about her image of God. Wangari Maathai did not flinch. She has fielded many hard questions and situations in the course of her life, but I suspect that she has rarely flinched. She told me that she has often revisited two concepts of God that stood in some tension, side by side, in her upbringing — the Christian God who was painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome and the God of Kikuyu culture who lived on Mount Kenya. "Now where is God?," Wangari Maathai asked me in response. She continued:
"I tell myself that of course now we're in a completely new era when we are learning to find God not in a place, but rather in ourselves, in each other, in nature. In many ways it's a contradiction, because the Church teaches you that God is omnipresent. Now if He is omnipresent, He's in Rome, but He could also be in Kenya. His shape, His size, His color … I have no idea. You are influenced by what you hear, what you see. But when I look at Mount Kenya — it is so magnificent, it is so overpowering, it is so important in sustaining life in my area — that sometimes I say yes, God is on this mountain."
I Recommend Reading:
Unbowed: A Memoir
by Wangari Maathai
Wangari Maathai's delightful memoir hadn't been published before I interviewed her. I'm glad though, because now I relish passages I might have read but not fully appreciated before our conversation. The path Maathai traces of her activist journey is woven and girded with wonderful stories from her Kikuyu ancestors and the Catholic sisters at St. Cecilia's Primary School. Unbowed allows you to see the optimism and humor, hope and love that only Wangari Maathai could embody.
The Spirituality of Parenting The notion of God as father is a me...