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Impact versus intention
sometimes letting go is the right thing to do
A couple of years ago, I led a retreat for religious professionals that was intended to make some space for our souls and learn some creative habits for our work. My initial title, and the one I started marketing with used the word “mojo.”
Now that seems innocent enough, and clear enough.
But within minutes, I got a text from a beloved educator I trust, who said “hey friend, can we talk about the title of your retreat?”
My heart sank, and I replied “this is going to have something to do with ‘mojo’ being misappropriated, isn’t it?”
We had a great conversation about how the word has a deep spiritual meaning in Yoruba and the Afro-Caribbean traditions, and its use in American popular culture has been casual – and sometimes sexual – and has taken what is sacred and made it profane. I changed the word to “spark,” which was actually a more powerful and more accurate word for the retreat, and I thanked my colleague for teaching me this.
I tell this story because it’s an example of we are always learning, we can always learn, and sometimes the full impact of harm emerges long after a concept or word or lyric has been in use – and only because of happenstance does it become revealed.
We don’t always know why it takes so long, but it takes the time it takes.
Which leads me to the heart of this post, one which I’ll be cross-posting at FarFringe as part of my Hymn by Hymn project.
In this case, the story starts this past Friday, in a meeting with Sarah Gettie (Professional Development Programs Manager at the UUA) and Amanda Thomas (UU musician and choral director). We are working on a UU theology and hymnody course, and in the course of our conversation, General Assembly came up. Amanda is singing in the Opening Ceremony (not to be missed – she is an amazing performer), and she mentioned some of the hard work they’ve been doing, especially when Amanda had to refuse to sing one song.
As Amanda told us, one of the songs selected is a beloved song to many but contains a word that is a gay slur in Jamaican patois.
That song is Harry Belafonte’s “Turn the World Around” and the slur is “abatewa” – I won’t share more about what it means, but if you knew the English translation you’d find it offensive too.
What’s hard about it, of course, is that it’s the last song in Singing the Journey, and we sing it joyfully. When you look online, you read that it may mean “so is life” or is simply a nonsense word that fit the song. Nothing hints at trouble.
And apparently even Belafonte did not know what that word meant. The story Sarah and I were told (and I believe it to be true – again, because I trust the sources) is that one of our religious professionals, who knew Belafonte personally, heard the song in one of our congregations a few years ago, and was shocked. They contacted him and told him what the word meant. Belafonte confessed that it was something he heard as a little boy and just thought it was a joyful exclamation. His intention certainly was not to hurt anyone, but the song contained a word that did. He told our colleague that we shouldn’t sing that anymore.
I’m pretty sure that when someone in the know encounters the song, they say something, the song is changed out, and no one besides the worship team is any the wiser.
Fast forward to this spring, and Amanda’s insistence, and the UUA-GA’s Inclusivity Review team getting involved – and the song will not be included. But as Amanda says, the song has been changed out, and no one besides those involved are any the wiser.
Except … Amanda told someone who has a popular SubStack. And that someone is one of the Association’s experts on our hymnody.
We can just quietly pull the song, or we can talk about it.
It’s heartbreaking – it’s a great song with a great origin story – and yet, if we just changed out the words, we would be allowing folks to sing it with the slur in their own spaces. Which is not what Belafonte, once he learned the impact, wanted. Better to say “yeah, skip this one now” and articulate why.
This is what we will be doing at SUUSI (the Southeast UU Summer Institute) where I serve as the Nurture Staff Director (worship and pastoral care). Our theme is “Turn OUR World Around” and it’s way too late to change that – but of course the song was going to feature prominently in our Ingathering and throughout the week.
But having learned about the harm, I called Amy Carol Webb, SUUSI’s Core Staff Director, and told her the story. She agreed that we needed to not use the song… and she agreed we need to talk about why. So – we are going to start the song’s introduction but interrupt it, and explain that while our intention was honorable, there is an unexpected impact; that sometimes we learn a thing isn’t good long after it’s become part of our fabric, and if we are to actually turn our world around, we have to be open and willing to accept the learning – and make changes. We haven’t come up with the replacement song yet, but we will. Just as we use “Building a New Way” where we might have used “We’ll Build a Land,” we will find the right song.
It's sad, I know. This Belafonte song is so wonderful in so many ways. But we cannot continue to use a song that contains such harmful words.
We will be better for it.
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The details of the story are not mine to tell; I am sharing the learning here but not the details.