“You wanna fly, you got to give up the shit that weighs you down.”
Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
By Yolanda Pierce, Ph.D.,
Every time that I read Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon, I am reminded that she should be considered one of the great theological minds of our time. Each chapter, every paragraph of her novel is a song and a prayer.
While giving a recent talk about African American spirituals, I used the quote above in conversation with the song, “I’ll Fly Away.” My argument was simple: every spiritual was not about an eschatological hope for justice at some point in the “by and by,” although some were. And not every spiritual was code for escaping from slavery, although some were. Some spirituals are just blues songs; they capture the pain of human existence even as they celebrate life’s sorrowful joys.
The song, “I’ll Fly Away” acknowledges the myth of the Flying Africans, but also, as Morrison suggests in her novel, the need to give up what weighs us down so that we can fly. There will be a day when the weight and cares of life can be cast aside, so that we can soar. And perhaps, as any good blues song suggests, if we don’t fly in this life, we can fly in the next life:
Some glad morning
When this life is over,
I’ll fly away…
To that home on God’s celestial shore,
I’ll fly away.
I simply asked my audience about the location of God’s celestial shore. Is it only in the afterlife, or can there be space for us to fly, right here and now? Can it be “on earth” as it is “in heaven?” After my talk, someone privately objected to the “profane” language of the Morrison quote which I had read aloud, suggesting that it was inappropriate to take something sacred, like a spiritual, and compare it to something that used such language.
I wanted to laugh at the irony of the moment. Worry about the appropriateness of a “curse” word is exactly the shit that weighs us down. We can be so focused on the small, insignificant things that we don’t see truth when it is staring us in the face. We are so weighted down by the inconsequential, that the weightier matters of justice and mercy elude our grasp. In trying to create a false dichotomy between the sacred (the holy) and the profane (the ordinary), we fail to see how often the most profane things teach us about that which is most sacred. Morrison’s novels, with curses and all, have taught me more spiritual truth than years of bible study and Sunday school. I’m learning to confront all the forces, both external and of my own making, that weigh me down and keep me from being who God has called me to be.
I pray that during this Lenten season, the holy will reveal itself in the most profane of places…so that we can give up whatever is weighing us down.
Dr. Yolanda Pierce is the Elmer G. Homrighausen Associate Professor of African American Religion and Literature at Princeton Theological Seminary, and Liaison with the Princeton University Center for African American Studies. She blogs @ Reflections of an Afro-Christian Scholar