The bells at Berkeley will ring out “Lift Every Voice and Sing” today at noon, the end result of an effort spearheaded by the UC Berkeley Black Staff and Faculty Organization. I’m reminded of the scene I wrote involving that seminal piece of African American history for my book Sin Against the Race. In the scene, my characters Bill and Alfonso feel conflicted by their pride for everything the song represents and their knowledge that many at their church would treat them as “brother outsiders” for being gay. These feelings came from my own conflict, the result of hearing the song for the first time in decades at an all-black gathering celebrating recent law school graduates. It was a profound moment for me, as a forty-something, long-time out gay dude to feel such conflict. I immediately incorporated it into my story. I had to. The feelings were too strong.
Here is how that section of the book looks nowadays. The earlier version can be found here.
Sunday Morning, Beacon Hill First Baptist, The Huck – Southside, 10ish
Alfonso had to stay close to his family, but when he noticed Bill entering the sanctuary, he held back. They greeted each other with a setting-appropriate manly hug. Then Bill laughed at Alfonso’s hair. The other night, after their conquest of Boy’s Town, Bill slowly picked out his braids on the bus ride home – Cinderella turned into a pumpkin again. Alfonso’s hair looked wild and untamed when Bill finished, just like Enkidu’s in Roy’s drawing. Now it has returned to conformity.
“You ready?” Bill said.
“Just waiting for the end,” Alfonso said.
Their eyes communicated much, a code spoken inviolately behind the wisp of their lavender veil.
“Well, take care, bro,” Bill said.
Alfonso broke protocol and grabbed Bill for a more-than-manly hug. He needed it, and Bill was happy to give it to him.
Soon, both found and sat with their respective families in the pews. Bill sat with his mother Marilene and his brother Derek about 8 rows back from the front. Alfonso’s family occupied the front row, naturally. Both scanned the sanctuary. It looked fuller than it ever had on any previous Sunday. That gave them both pause. Did all of these people come out just because they felt their world threatened by the Carver Street people, by folks like me?
Each, in time, thought that might have been paranoia talking. This was clearly a major social event, a see-and-be-seen do. The sanctuary screamed money. Suits came well pressed and in three-piece. Dresses looked never worn. Fly hats saw first light out of the milliner’s. And a battalion of colognes and perfumes choked the air as they battled for supremacy. Even Bill’s mother thought it was all too much. Derek, shackled with a tie he hated, whispered to Bill, “Negro bling-fest.” No doubt, he said back.
Reverend Johnson strolled across the stage to the pulpit, passing the row of reverends sitting stage right, his teeth beaming at the throngs that filled his capacious church.
“Bless you all this good morning!”
“Amen!” the congregation responded.
“I say again, bless you all this good morning!”
“Amen!” the congregation repeated with greater volume.
“Yes, indeed! Before we start the program of this blessed day, I’d like to make an announcement. Just a short time ago, our police have removed the so-called ‘protest’ that for too long besmirched the northwest corner of the park.”
Applause erupted instantly and sustained itself as Reverend Johnson kept speaking.
“We have, my friends, we have Councilman Berry’s tireless dedication to keeping our community whole and safe to thank for this action.” He let loose his broadest, toothiest smile as an extended hand gestured towards Ford Berry in the front row. The Councilman stood and nodded modestly.
Alfonso clapped along with his sisters and his mother, but softly and largely for show. The applause rang loudly in his ears and his hollowed gut amplified it. All the while he thought of Eddie, after whom the encampment was named. None of these folks knew Eddie or saw him after the crowbars got through with him.
“We will start this blessed day,” Reverend Johnson said, as the thunder died, “with the singing of the national anthems. All who can please rise.”
The choir, composed of singers from all of the participating churches, stood stage left. The organist sat center stage under a huge banner that read UNITY. He led the choir and congregation through the Star-Spangled Banner. Most sang with their hands over their hearts.
After they finished, the organist struck a familiar set of chords to introduce the next anthem.
“You still remember how to play this?” Bill’s mother asked.
He nodded as he thought about the chords and their fingering. G7, C, E7/B, A.
Bill asked Anthony to teach him “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at their first session together. The old anthem served as a shield and talisman against the hatred and de facto segregation of his hometown and was sung at all ceremonies, large and small. Thus it held a deep meaning for him. It had been a while since he last heard or sang it.
Then a disturbing thought crossed his mind: was it still his song to claim? Like Alfonso, Bill felt depth charges pulverize his gut when the room erupted rapturously over the takedown of Eddie’s Grove. He could measure his otherness by each handclap.
Similar anxieties haunted him after his first break with the church. That summer, he and Gabriel spent their Sundays riding their hand-built raft down stream to their private spot to skinny dip. Their travels took them behind his family’s church. When they passed it, Bill’s stomach did mild summersaults. His worst fear was to have folks from the church look at him in his skivvies next to another man similarly clad. Would they stone him and cast him out of the tribe? Worse, would his family disown him? The moment never happened, but it remained a lingering threat.
No, he muttered, they can’t take this away from me. They can’t take this away from us.
Bill stared hard towards the front. He saw Gabriel on the pulpit in his fatigues, hoping the green would camouflage the difference that chewed inside of him. He saw Samuel Turner on the pulpit, presenting the gay youth that came to his store seeking shelter and comfort and acceptance. He saw Auntie Vera on the pulpit in her towering splendor reminding people of the humanity that vanished for her around the time she claimed different pronouns. He saw Anthony, his old music teacher, on the pulpit, too scared to do anything but play his keyboards, even when the sermons tore his soul asunder. Finally, he saw his sistah Alfonso on the pulpit in silence, looking towards his father, hoping for once to be seen and appreciated as he truly appeared.
Emboldened by the presence of those he carried with him, Bill lifted his voice louder and, like the old radicals did back home whenever they sang the anthem, he raised his left fist in a Black Power salute. Derek saw his brother and did the same. Folks began turning their attention from the pulpit and the Berrys to the Hawk brothers living large. Alfonso even turned and looked. When he saw what was happening, he felt vindicated. “Yes!” he muttered.
Marilene said nothing, but felt proud that her boys acted as they did in the sididdy crowd.