(This column is from 2008, but seems to have disappeared from the Net – so I’m reposting.)
So when exactly did “Kumbaya” become a dirty word?
Maybe you were twelve or so, sitting around the campfire after an exhausting day of fun at Camp Way-Re-Mo-Te, and a counselor, that college girl with the light brown hair who taught pottery, got out her guitar – and after a few rounds of “Michael Row the Boat Ashore” and “Blowin’ in the Wind” came one that you hadn’t heard before. Munching on smores, wondering if that girl from Connecticut would ever say “boo” to you, you sang along even though you had no idea what that word “Kumbaya” was supposed to mean. Then someone explained that it was an old spiritual, a prayer really, a call to the Lord to “come by here”… and it felt like maybe he had, and it was nice to be there, under the stars, trying out harmonies with a bunch of strangers.
There’s some question about just where the song “Kumbaya” came from; a likely explanation traces it to the Gullah people of the Sea Islands in South Carolina. (If you’d like to explore the history, Wikipedia’s article on this is a good place to start.) The song became a staple of the folk movement in the 50’s and 60’s, and was frequently used in religious services. (I think my first experience with it was not at camp, but at parochial school in the mid-60’s – if I tell you that the music teacher’s name really was “Sister Mary Nirvana,” that might be all you need to know.)
But recently “Kumbaya” has become shorthand, a code word, a dismissive epithet for a supposedly naïve, wrongheaded, and possibly even fatal hope for reconciliation among enemies or the establishment of actual lasting peace. It’s gotten to the point that anyone who seems like they might have some point of agreement with an adversary, or who might be considering entering into negotiations, has to first disavow any Kumbaya possibilities. “We’re not going to be holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya,’ that’s for sure!” they’ll say at the start of the peace conference or the labor contract negotiations – and then all the spectators wipe their brows with relief.
(Eric Zorn of the Chicago Times wrote a great column in 2006 about this phenomenon, by the way – see blogs.chicagotribune.com/news_columnists_ezorn/2006/08/someones_dissin.html, or tinyurl.com/3bbo7o.)
I’d have to say “Kumbaya” has gotten an undeserved bad rap. It must be reclaimed. To set things right, I hereby propose the establishment of a new movement: the “Kumbaya Liberation Front.” Here’s a start for a manifesto:
At the Kumbaya Liberation Front, we say “So just what the hell is so wrong with singing ‘Kumbaya,’ anyway?” We defy all attempts by the Powers That Be to squash our hopes or quell our optimism. We are intentionally and radically naïve – we insist that hopeless situations can indeed be made better, that inflexible people can change, that solutions can be found to impossible problems, that intractable conflicts can be resolved, that the endless suffering of humanity can be reduced, not just redistributed – and we insist on these things deliberately, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
We know hope may not be enough – to make it real requires plans, actions, and hard work. But we also know that without hope, without a vision, without inspiration, all the nuts-and-bolts competence in the world is useless. In the face of cynics, wet blankets, and dour realists, we uphold the spirit of “Kumbaya.”
Anyone got a problem with that?
Kumbayistas – forward!