Bernice Johnson Reagon

The first thing I noticed when I walked into Bernice Johnson Reagon's office at the Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. was the word GOSPEL in foot-tall letters on the wall. The second thing I noticed was the "We Shall Overcome" poster from the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, August 28, 1963.


Faith and justice hang together here like they do in most of what Reagon undertakes. She is a leading scholar on Black American oral history, performing-arts tradition, American protest culture, and African Diaspora studies. But she is perhaps most recognized as the founding member of Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella ensemble of Black women who perform traditional and contemporary songs, mostly from the African-American tradition. Whether performing in staid concert halls or before political protest marches, Sweet Honey in the Rock always brings its audiences to life.

When she opened the door to let me in to her office, Reagon was singing. She had her arm around a Spanish speaking museum employee as she sang a Central American folk song she had performed in concert. Reagon wanted to be sure she had used the correct pronunciation and dialect the other evening. She was dressed totally in white—one of those white jump suits that are tight at the ankles and wrists and balloon in the middle. She had on a white turban as well. She was an intimidating presence.

But after she got over her reserve and after I got over my nervousness, we shared an intimate interview full of laughter. At one point our knees touched and Reagon leaned over and looked directly into my eyes and said, "Honey, art is that thing you do for yourself."

Once the interview ended, we both returned to our separate worlds. But I think we both experienced how women can help each other, how women can communicate with each other. And sometimes when I play the piano or paint or listen to music, I hear her voice saying, half-laughing and half-begging, "Honey, art is that thing you do for yourself." -Sharon Anderson

When were you first aware of God?
I don't think I had a first awareness of God. I don't think I had a first awareness of breathing. I think I'll become aware of breathing when I stop. Then I'll know what breathing is. I think God is like that—like the air that I have never been without.

God has changed a lot, however.

How has God changed?
I grew up in a Black Baptist home—my father was a preacher. And I discovered early on that merely being aware of God was not enough. We had revival meetings where you were tested by elders to see if you had become responsible for your own faith and could join the church.

Was joining the church similar to what fundamentalist Christians would call a "born-again" experience?
I don't want anything I do or did associated with what contemporary people think about when they say "born again" or "fundamentalist." Not because I have a problem with fundamentalists, but I think it is a contemporary experience which does not assist in telling my story.

In my childhood community, we had discussions when I became nine or ten about whether I had been given a sign. Many times when people believed they had been touched, converted, and forgiven of their sins, they would be asked by the elders if they had been given a sign. If they hadn't, they could not come forward. Some people had incredible signs.

When this time came in your life, you didn't eat or drink. You fasted and prayed. When the sign came, it was a powerful experience for you and a real point of celebration for the whole community. That happened to me when I was eleven. I then became a member of the church and a Christian. After that, I didn't act the same; I was less frivolous in the way I conducted myself. I can also remember thinking that if I was really a Christian, I had to learn to sing more difficult songs, songs I didn't care for, like lining hymns, which is a very sophisticated form in Black traditional churches.

I think the next major change was the civil-rights movement. It was not exactly clear to me during that time that it was a conversion. But I know as a singer, my voice changed. It became more powerful. I also had the experience of having to make a decision based on what I believed in—without really having any evidence of safety. I decided to demonstrate in Albany, Georgia, and I went to jail for it. I remember describing that experience as being "born-again." My stance in the world was transformed.

There's a song that says, "I looked at my feet, and my feet looked new. I looked at my hands, and they did, too." For me, the civil-rights movement and my participation in it was the most dramatic internal and external change in my life.

And was it a spiritual change?
It was not simply spiritual. It was also physical, emotional, and intellectual. Today this stance is the strongest thing that holds my life together. I have never wavered from it.

I have gone through a process since then. After studying the history of Christianity and other religions, and the ugliness that comes about as people decide who is and isn't saved, I was forced to claim another way of articulating my spiritual source. I don't know or follow a God who would send somebody to hell because they had never heard of Jesus Christ. That's incompatible with any God that I have anything to do with.

Do you read the Bible?
I have read the Bible since I was very little. I read the Bible as an interesting source, but I also read June Jordan and Toni Morrison and Alice Walker and Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois. Everything I draw upon has to nurture the stance I took in the civil-rights movement.

I was not thinking consciously of God when I picketed in Albany, Georgia. However, I did know that God was on my side.

In the Black church, there are songs that say, "Come on in my room." The room is mine, and the person I am inviting in is Jesus. Another song says, "I have a telephone in my bosom, I can call him up." I actually had the feeling that God needed me. I felt I was doing something that made God smile and feel glad to come into my room.

What can you say to other Christians who have difficulty believing that God would be happy to come into their rooms?
I have no need that my God be somebody else's God. I have an aversion to people who think that they have to give what they found to other people, who must then listen and follow. When I share, I share so people might understand who I am and understand that there's nothing mystical about me. There's nothing out of reach. I also have an aversion to making Jesus so big that people automatically decide they can't be like Jesus.

All of us have opportunities to find a stance in our lives, and we should go to our death operating out of that stance. I think the opportunity comes to us more than once, and every time it comes, you can choose or not choose. If you choose, you are lucky; you are blessed. It clears up a lot of stuff in your life.

On your Good News album, you said it was "good news to lay down the world and shoulder the cross of Jesus. It's not a good time, but it's good news." Why is it good news?
Those words are from a Black traditional song; so they are not mine. The cross you are shouldering is not the cross of Jesus. Jesus carried his own cross. You shoulder up your own cross. Your burden is primarily not the work you have to do, but how you feel about it.

I've always worked hard. I always saw my mother and father work hard. There is a way you can feel about work that makes you a slave to the work. But no matter what condition your body is in, you can always be free.

What's the secret?
There's a song by Charles Albert Tindley that says, "Take your burden to the Lord. Leave it there." Don't take your job to God. Take the heaviness—the stuff that bends you over—which is not the work. Take that heaviness to the Lord.

How do you give up your burden?
I say, "I cannot do this. God, you do it." I remember reading once, "God likes a crowded schedule." Now that, in terms of my schedule, is a chant for me. Sometimes I look at my day, and I know there is no way I can get through it. So I say, "OK, you like a crowded schedule? Fine, this is your schedule. You run it." Then I put on my coat, and I walk out the door and at night I fall into bed and say, "Thanks, I did the best I could. I hope you are satisfied." That's it.

If, in the middle of the day, I take the schedule back and start worrying about it, I stop and say, "Oh, yeah, this ain't my schedule, honey. It's yours. Excuse me, could you take your schedule back? Thy will, not mine, be done."

On your album River of Life, you say that when you sing, many voices come to you.
Are any of those voices ever God?

God don't sing in my choir. God is too big. You just need a human voice. In Black singing, you really couldn't deal with any perfectionist. God would break the machines. I'm sure God is present as God is present in my life. But the part of God that you get has to go through this human being who is fallible.

There are periods when I think I am God because I suffer from being a perfectionist—although I have recovered greatly. More and more as I learn to turn things over, I celebrate the fact that I'm not God. I don't have to get anything right. I just have to do the best that I can, and that is all God wants.

The only God you hear on River of Life is the little god that can come through a human being who errs. But God singing straight on my song? I don't think I could tolerate that at all as a choir director.

You've said that in meetings during the civil-rights movement, sometimes people prayed, sometimes people read Scripture, but always there was singing. What is the importance of singing in doing justice?
The community is healthiest when it sings. Singing is the process of creating a communal voice. And from the day I was born, I knew we had come together when there was singing. There were not always social justice campaigns when that happened. Black culture uses singing to express unity.

One of the reasons I sing in mixed company—where everybody is not Black—is to get people to try and experience that announcement that we are all in the same place. Singing together expresses the community on a level that goes beyond anything you hear, see, or say.

Is that why you are so committed to inviting audience participation at your concerts?
I don't really think it is an invitation. I think I make people feel that if they don't sing they are going to die. They don't feel there's a choice. I build a space that makes people feel very bad if they decide they don't want to sing.

I know that if I allow people to operate out of their own cultural grounding, many of them will choose not to practice Black culture. When I call people to sing with me, I want them to practice Black American culture. Most of the time, people are very grateful and amazed at what happens, and I think that's why I do it.

When people really swell and we finish the song with the chord resonating up there, they can feel that chord was not just made by those women up on stage. Then they know something else about where my singing comes from. It's a way of giving credit to Black congregational tradition, which means you pass the audition when you walk in the door!

What did you mean when you said, "People without art or music are dead because there's a component in people that can be reached only through the arts"?
When you look at human culture, you see that you are born into practices that define who you are. People are much more than just eating and sleeping. When I think of singing, dance, poetry, and literature, I think of recreating myself on another level. When you practice creativity—it's a way of working on yourself, of massaging yourself. There is a sigh when you are finished creating just like when you finished getting a massage. That's what the arts do. The capacity that it extends for me is the capacity to love.

Is that why you believe that the only thing Sweet Honey really sings about is love?
Love is difficult. You have a choice at every turn on how to operate your actions and strategies. You can operate from greed, anxiety, or hostility. Or you can operate from love. There is a skill involved; a capacity that you have to develop to operate out of love.

You're just not able get up in the morning and say, "I'm going to love from now on." The next thing you will do is knock somebody over. You have to consciously relearn it because in this society we get alienated from what might be a natural instinct. You have to refuel that little flickering flame of love and find ways to make it stronger. Art is very much involved in the massaging and the fueling of that capacity within the spirit.

What do you say to somebody who says, "I can't draw a picture; I can't sing a song; the arts can't help me"? How can you inspire somebody to at least try and benefit from what the arts have to offer?
You practice. There are arts that are communal and participatory. Looking at pictures, watching somebody dance—we must do these things, especially if we are involved in social justice. Many social activists will only go to an art exhibit if the art was done by a revolutionary who was beaten to death in Chile. This is not the only way to benefit from the arts.

You don't have to be a painter, but you have to schedule time where that thing can happen to you and you can feel it happening. It's just like a massage for your body. You don't get one running in the street. It may mean that you don't attend that important meeting. This is blasphemous to social justice, but art is something you must do.

Every week I need to dance, and I need a massage. I need to be quiet outside once a day. Everyday I need to sing. How can I fit all of this in? You cannot stay in the struggle all of your life if you don't get that in. You end up having no humor.

You may be really talented. You may be an incredible worker. You may be important for the movement. But you really are killing yourself; and therefore, you are draining any environment you are in.

I went a long time without laughing after I got involved in the movement. But in this process of trying to transform myself, I began—it happened in my solo performances—to talk about the songs, and everything came out funny. People were rolling in the aisles. They cried, too, when I talked about slavery and lynching. But, God, they howled!

I thought, "Oh, my God, maybe I'm a comedian." It bothered me because I was a stern person. But then I just gave myself the courage to let it go. I never knew what was going to come out of my mouth. It's been wonderful to discover my capacity to be funny.

There really is a light-heartedness to your concerts despite the heavy issues you sing about.
People have asked me, "How can you sing about things that are so bad, and yet when I hear the songs, I always feel so good?"

For example, I'll sing a song called, "This Is a Mean World," a traditional song done in sort of a jump rhythm. You can't sing it without feeling good! It says, "This is a mean world to try and live in until you die without a mother, without a father, without a sister, without a brother. This is a mean world."

Is it a mean world today?
It's mean, dangerous, and anti-human. Very anti-life. But we should celebrate the fact that as humans we have choices. Trees and animals are alive and productive. But only humans get to choose. When we celebrate that and learn to organize around choice, then our lives fly in the face of a dangerous world.

In your advice to people, you have said, "Don't ignore your responsibility to witness, to be visible. Be noisy, be noticeable."
Every day and every minute when somebody sees you they should stop and turn around because of the noise. Somebody should know you have walked in that space. That's witnessing. I'm not just talking about what you wear. I'm talking about making visible in every atmosphere you're in, the stance you represent. And if you do that everyday, then you can die any time.

How do you want to be remembered when you die?
I don't have any of that. I don't really focus on when I die. I'm not in charge of it. It's like a job. I don't hire me, and I don't fire me. The only choice I can exercise is the point between those two. Between birth and death is where I can choose to do some things. So I spend most of my time thinking about how to make that space a celebration of gratitude for having the opportunity to be alive. I think it is very good to be alive.

Being human is a very special way to go through the universe. I don't know what it's like to be a star or a tree or a lion. But I think being human is special; I'm grateful for it and I don't want to waste it. I usually try to live so whenever that day is finished, there ain't nothing else I think I could have done with it.

The only time I have ever experienced worrying about when I die is when I have fallen in love with another person. I'll say to God, "I might be on your list to go tomorrow, but could you just wait and let me see how this is going to work out?" I want God to give me a little more time to experience living in the universe bonded with another human being.

Overview of Sharon J. Anderson