Of Our Coming | August 29, 2021 by Dr. Dorsey Blake
Of Our Coming
Why dost thou wonder at the height of the stars or the depth of the sea?
Enter into thine own soul, and wonder there. – Francis Quarles
A full half of the Black folks formed a procession seeing him to the train station bidding farewell for now, but just for now. John’s mother had decided to send him away to attend school, the first Black student to leave the small, segregated town of Altamaha in Southern Georgia. White folks in the town said that it would lead to no good. It would “spoil him, ruin him.” From their perspective he was a “good boy, fine plough-hand, good in the rice-fields, handy everywhere, and always good natured and respectful.” For the Black community he was their son as well as the son of his mother. He was hope.
After the Black folks had watched the train leave the station with its precious passenger, a refrain developed in the town that became an unstated chorus for their future salvation, – When John comes.
No one knew exactly the music of that salvation. There would be parties, speaking in churches, perhaps a new school, a new front room or at least new furniture for the front room. There would be improvement in the conditions that denigrated their days. No, they had not strewn palm branches for John’s triumphant departure. They had celebrated, however, with kisses and slaps on the back, with great animation and jubilation. Somehow, they believed that his leave was just the beginning of his return home. They looked for the glorious day “When John comes.”
I am not sure John had any deep sense of the expectations of his community upon his return, so young and new to the world of aspiration was he. He created a reputation at the school he attended in Johnstown that was not that of messiah, even a reluctant one. He was boisterous, full of mischief and merriment and undisciplined in his academic responsibilities. For a long time, the clay seemed unfit for any sort of molding. Finally, the faculty decided to dismiss him for the rest of the term. John’s plea to the Dean to not inform his mother and sister of his dismissed was honored. John’s plan was to work in the city and then return to school. This he accomplished.
When he returned to school, he was a very different person. He looked now for the first time sharply about him and wondered he had seen so little before. He grew slowly to feel almost for the first time the Veil that lay between him and the white world; he first noticed now the oppression that had not seemed oppression before, differences that erstwhile seemed natural, restraints and slights that in his boyhood days had gone unnoticed or been greeted with a laugh.
He grew in wisdom and knowledge, in understanding the ways of the world, the entrapments that are commonplace.
He had always planned to go back to his little hometown; but, now? Daily he found himself shrinking from the choked and narrow life of his hometown. What had been normal was now seen as immoral. What had been acceptable was now seen as the chains they really were.
Initially, the Black folks in Altamaha expected John to come home for that first Christmas break, and then the next break and the following one. Finally, the news spread that John was indeed coming home. The refrain When John comes became a great melody again, lifting the expectations of a community in need of good news and a messenger of change and hope, of building and inspiration. John’s return had brought Baptists and Methodists together in hosting him. Even the Presbyterians joined the homecoming spirit and expectation.
Yet, nowhere did his appearances and speeches seem to please, not even himself. John left the church that night despondent. His little sister, who had always loved and respected him so dearly, followed. At some point she asked:
“John, does it make everyone – unhappy when they study and learn lots of things?”
He paused and smiled: “I am afraid it does.”
“And, John, are you glad you studied?”
“Yes,” came the answer, slowly but positively.
She watched the flickering lights upon the sea, and said thoughtfully, “I wish I was unhappy, --and – and,” putting both arms about this neck, “I think I am, a little, John.”
That is the message I want us to hear today. We must learn all we can about life, our society and world, the ways of nations and ourselves. When we learn we will be disheartened by the ways we have treated and continue to treat each other. We will be annoyed by how we have fowled our own nests, how we have “soiled” our own soil. To learn, however, is an imperative. It is a responsibility of being responsible dwellers and roommates with all of creation.
We ought to be a bit unhappy so that the unhappiness calls us to more depth of body, to great heights of imagination, and fuller nurture of the soul. A little unhappiness can ignite the magic that is available to us.
Carol Etzler wrote and composed the song:
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened. Sometimes I wish I could no longer see All of the pain and the hurt and the longing of my Sisters and me as we try to be free.
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened, Just for an hour, how sweet it would be Not to be struggling, not to be striving, But just sleep securely in our slavery.
But now that I’ve seen with my eyes, I can’t close them, Because deep inside me somewhere I’d still know The road that my sisters and I have to travel: My heart would say, “Yes” and my feet would say “Go!”
Sometimes I wish my eyes hadn’t been opened, But now that they have, I’m determined to see: That somehow my sisters and I will be one day The free people we were created to be.
I shall not share with you all the intricacies of When John comes. They are beautifully, passionately told with great pathos, understanding, surrender, and realism in the chapter, “The Coming of John,” in that great literary gift The Souls of Black Folk. If I could recommend only one book to anyone who wants to understand the Black Experience, it would be that book.
I would, however, like to revisit a few ideas, among them the idea that the oppressed get accustomed to their oppression. The acceptance of things as they are because they have always been that way, that there has never been another reality. Is it peculiar that John’s awakening came when he was away from the obviously, legally segregated small Georgia town? It came in the North in de facto segregation when he had some leisure in viewing life. Perhaps, it is good that he lived so long without understanding segregation, racism. Understanding changed him greatly. With this awakening he can no longer fit into the mold that had molded his life for so many years, so many turnings of the seasons, now summers and winters of discontent, spring times and autumns of treachery. He felt angry when men did not call him “Mister,” he clenched his hands at the “Jim Crow” cars, and chafed at the color-line that hemmed in him and his. Yes, he had to become “uppity,” not because he intellectually decided to become uppity one day, but because it prevented him from becoming “mad,” not angry, mad. The circumstances dictated it. He no longer fit. And, he had not found another hometown within where his could live in harmony.
While the refrain When John comes lifts the spirit of his Black hometown community, it is also a lament. For embedded in it is the recognition of the need for someone to come. Inherent in its affirmation of John is a confession that change needs to come. This is for certain. Yet, his community is not aware of the form(s), the disguises in which the change may come. John has not consciously identified himself as messiah; yet, that is what the people see in him, not “the Messiah,” but messiah, one to deliver them. Although it was a personal lament of his mother, his sisters, and individual members of the community, it was also a communal lament. For within the community “they sought a city whose builder and maker is God.” (Hebrew 11:10) Yet, the Black community does not understand that what John offers in his rejected addresses is a cornerstone for that new city. Tagore reminds us:
The life which is bound on all sides with the environment of our self, within the limited range of our senses must be so fundamentally different from the life of an emancipated soul that it is impossible to imagine the latter while we are immured in the sheath of self. And, there, in our desire for eternal life we pray for an eternity of our habit and comfort, forgetting that immortality is in repeatedly transcending the definite forms of life in order to pursue the infinite truth of life. Those who think that life’s true meaning is in the persistence of its forms which are familiar to us are like misers who have not the power to know that the meaning of money can only be found by spending it, by changing the symbol into truth.
Recently, I have been in contact with two of my high school classmates. After talking with one, I happened to come upon a website that had the yearbook from Lincoln High for the year 1964, the year I graduated. I started looking through the pages and found the ones where students stated who/what they strove to become: nurse, doctor, housewife, technician, etc. I thought: “How wonderful it was to invite graduating seniors to think affirmatively about their goals, goals that would also benefit our community, when they come.”
When John comes causes me to pause and think: What does it mean to think of When Dorsey comes? Or, When You come? Does it matter to anyone? Does anyone get excited? What expectations do our communities have? What expectations should there be? What difference does our presence in our communities make? What would be absent if we were not present? Have we ever had people waiting our coming with great anticipation? Are we aware of a time when there was a feeling that something profound will happen, perhaps, even the shaking of foundations when we come? What privilege and responsibility do we have to be personal and communal messiahs in the communities where we live?
I don’t mean to suggest that the Spirit of Life, God, the All-Pervading Presence is absent without us. Clearly, the spirit of God was within John’s small hometown, in his mother, his sister, and community. But, is the particular, unique manifestation, the fresh expression of God that each of us is, present in the places where we live? And, what difference does it make? These are the questions I raise.
Dr. King wrote in Letter from Birmingham City Jail:
There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Wherever the early Christians entered a town the power structure got disturbed and immediately sought to convict them for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators." But they went on with the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven" and had to obey God rather than man. They were small in number but big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." They brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contest.
Certainly, these messengers of abundant life must have been “a little unhappy” which led them to audaciously transformation of society. I too am a little unhappy, and you?
By desiring what is perfectly good, even when we do not quite know what it is and cannot do what we would, we are part of the power against evil, widening the skirts of light and making the struggle with darkness narrower. —George Eliot