When we first moved back down to the family farm in 1998, we’d often have an Akathist to the Mother of God in our little cemetery, built in 1875 and dedicated to “Slaves, Paupers and Indians.” It’s on the Greene County historic sites registry, and the National Registry of Historic Places. It has three Osage Indian mounds, and one of Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad associates, Mother Charity James, is there as well.
On one occasion, several nuns were with us to sing the Akathist, in a Valaam special melody tone. Also in attendance were my mother and several other elderly kinfolk. After the beautiful service, my dear old “Aunt” Willetta Johnson, of Springfield, MO, said, referring to the ancient Orthodox hymn we’d just completed, “that’s the way the old folks used to sing.”
At first, I thought that she was just being kind, because the older people in my family had always been kind and supportive of me, even when I lived a lawless life. To me, the Akathist sounded like nothing my relatives would ever have heard. But I knew of their kindness. I recall one occasion when I came back to Missouri after living in Salmon Creek commune in Big Sur, California, bringing along a group of my friends, who looked like a motley crew. One girl had on a mini dress which was quite scandalous. Miss Effie Yokum and my grandma Mamie Berry, both children of slaves, were there when we pulled into the yard. Miss Effie turned to Mamie and said, “That girl should be ashamed of herself for wearing that dress, and your grandson should be ashamed for bringing her here.” My grandmother responded, “Effie, you remember those long dresses we used to wear?” Effie certainly did. Grandma said, “You know, we could get those long dresses up just as quick as they can get those short ones up.” She said this not to defend me and my scantily dressed friend, but to cover my nakedness and lack of sensitivity. So you see, my relatives have always been kind and supportive of most things I did and said. Not that there weren’t any consequences, but they gave them to me later, because they knew who I was. My great grandma Zona Long used to say to me, “God takes care of old folks and fools” and since I wasn’t very old, you can imagine what category I fell into.
Back to the cemetery – I thought my relatives were once again just being tolerant of this musical form that I’d supposed was so foreign to them. But it came to me later that the reason it reminded them of the way the old folks used to sing was because both musical expressions – the traditional old time Black gospel music and the Akathist to the Mother of God sung in a Russian tone, embodied an otherworldly “joyful suffering.” When my relatives sang “I’ve got a mother in Beulah land who outshines the Sun – look away beyond the blue!” in a mournful melody, longing for the day when they would be reunited with their families, having been before the dread judgment seat of Christ, it was the same as hearing in the Akathist, “the wise children did not adore the golden idol, but went themselves into the flame and defied the pagan gods – they prayed in the midst of the flames and an angel bedewed them, the prayer of your lips has been heard.” What resonated with Aunt Willeta and my mother in the Akathist was that peace wasn’t to be found in this world, but only in the world to come would we find consolation. That’s what reminded them of ” how the old folks used to sing.”
I think that those generations of my ancestors, bound with manacles of iron, were freer than me, bound by the chains of modernity. They knew where their true home was. In this world, they were only passing through.