FACES OF FAITH
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
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,
of Black women who perform traditional and contemporary songs, mostly from
the African-American tradition. Whether performing in staid concert halls
political protest marches, Sweet Honey in the Rock always brings its audiences
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
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 balloon in the middle. She had on a white turban as well. She was an
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
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
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
stop. Then I'll
know what breathing is. I think God is like that—like the air that
I have never been
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.
been touched, converted, and forgiven of their sins, they would
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
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.
that, I didn't
the same; I was less frivolous in the way I conducted myself.
can also remember thinking that if I was really a Christian,
I had 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
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
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
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
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 Paul Robeson and W. E. B. DuBois. Everything I draw
upon has to nurture the
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
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
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
so big that
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
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
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
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
the work. But
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
God would break
machines. I'm sure God is present as God is present
in my life. But the part of God that you get has to
There are periods when I think I am God because
I suffer from being a perfectionist—although I have recovered
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
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
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
I was born,
I knew we had
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
die. They don't
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
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
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
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
just eating and
I think of singing, dance, poetry, and literature,
I think of recreating myself on another level. When
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
That's what the
arts do. The
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
I began—it happened
in my solo
performances—to talk about the songs, and everything
came out funny. People were rolling in the aisles.
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
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
and productive. But only humans get to choose. When
we celebrate that and learn
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,
Every day and every minute when somebody sees you
they should stop and turn around because of the noise.
witnessing. I'm not just talking about what you wear.
I'm talking about making visible in every atmosphere
in, the stance
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
and I don't
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
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
or a tree or
a lion. But
I'm grateful for it and I don't want to waste it.
I usually try to live so whenever that day is finished,
nothing else I
The only time I have ever experienced worrying
about when I die is when I have fallen in love
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.