The president and the slave trader

This morning, Sunday morning, for the first time in my life, I sat in bed with my laptop and watched a 40 minute video. It was emotional watching.

There were tears. (I know, the tears thing – it’s becoming a habit. But, you know what? The world could do with more tears – and fewer guns.)

Anyway. This was no feature film, no soap opera, no documentary. This was President Obama talking. At a pace we’ve forgotten to respect. At a pace we need to rediscover. At a human pace.

Talking to the patient, bereaved community of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston.

The President wove his eulogy for Pastor Clementa Pinckney around the words of Amazing Grace.

We do not earn grace, he said, time and again. We are given grace, by God.

This was an extraordinary eulogy in so many ways.

To a person used to the evasions of the British, the mere mention of God as if he – yes, he – does exist was exceptional.

But I soon forgot to notice it.

After all, I think I believe. I think.

At first President Obama looked as if he had been presented with a poisoned chalice, but one he accepted almost with relief.

His God did not let it pass away from him. It was a chalice of experience, not poison.

He spoke quietly, no rabble rousing, no tear jerking, no crashing crescendoes.

It was about Obama, but it was about all black Americans.

I felt a surge of almost joy that, at last, this black – yes, black – president had been able, with such tragic good cause, to speak of his own membership of an oppressed group of people.

I will not call it a race. We are all humans, no matter what our skin colour or gender or sexual orientation or disabilities.

It was a long eulogy, for those used to soundbites, to politicians with carefully rehearsed emotions and ambiguity of meanings.

As he spoke, members of his audience agreed, muttered, repeated what he said.

And then it happened.

He stopped.

Not for a moment, for dramatic effect, but because. His because.

There was as much silence as there can be in a big crowd of people. And then two words he had repeated many times came out differently .

He sang, two words.

Amazing Grace.

And that man can sing.

That man – that black man who is the President of the USA – can sing.

I felt as if a caged bird – oh yes, a caged bird – had sung.

Listening to him speak, then sing, it was as if a tap had been turned on, that was normally soldered shut. He was speaking as one of a crowd that felt something different from me, from white Americans, from white people the world over.

Free at last, to talk about it. Because of a tragedy. Yet another gun-enabled tragedy. And yes, he was able to talk about that, too.

The video of the President singing is here, 36 minutes in, but if you can find the time I recommend watching the whole thing. The experience becomes the more wonderful for it, trust me.

Are you still there?

Are you wondering about the slave trader yet?

Well, a short while ago I wrote one of those ranty pieces I try to keep bottled up but that fizz and fuss till they have to burst out.

About refugees.

In it I mentioned British singer songwriter Rebecca Ferguson’s moving rendition of the Obama (forever, now) hymn in a church as I watched Sunday television, teary-eyed (again) in a post-operative, pain-killer haze.

What I failed to describe in my post was the introduction which tells us about the origins of the hymn.

Amazing Grace was written by a man called John Newton in 1764. He was then a curate of Olney parish church in Buckinghamshire, England.

During a colourful career at sea he had been deeply involved in the transport of slaves.

A terrible storm, in which his ship nearly sank, resulted in his conversion to Christianity and his eventual induction as a clergyman into the Church of England.

It was not until 1788, though, some 34 years after retiring from slaving, that he published, ‘Thoughts Upon the Slave Trade’, describing the dreadful conditions of the slave ships on which he had served.

It would, he wrote, “always be a subject of humiliating reflection to me that I was once an active instrument in a business at which my heart now shudders.” He became an abolitionist and lived to see the passage of the British Slave Trade Act of 1807.

More than 200 years later, in the church where he served his parishioners, the lovely Rebecca Ferguson learns about this story:

and here she is singing his hymn, Amazing Grace

And now I sign off on another Sunday with a bit more joy and hope in my heart. Because one day everyone, surely, will be free, at last. Everyone will be treated as equal. Everyone will be able to pursue his or her life in liberty – and endeavour to find happiness without being oppressed.

Whether we believe in the President’s God, or Pastor Clementa Pinckney’s God, or not, surely this is something we humans can achieve if we try hard enough.

The forgiveness that the relatives of those who died showed so readily to the young man accused of murdering their loved ones is a lesson to us all.

Yes, we can hope, And yes, we shall, one day, overcome the prejudice that is so slow to die.

A black president in a white world has sung. It is up to us all to listen – and learn.

This entry was posted in Thinking, or ranting, or both and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The president and the slave trader

  1. Judy says:

    Brilliant!Once again you have encapsulated something of real meaning and value,sharing your own vulnerabilities within it;making it personal whilst keeping it universal and offering a voice for the people.
    Why aren’t you in Politics please?xo


  2. Thel says:

    A moving piece. I did not know the backstory of the song Amazing Grace. How fitting. It was the congregation of the AME Church in Charleston who taught a lesson in amazing grace! Their example was most moving for me.

    On a lighter note, you must search for the YouTube of President Obama singing “I’m so in love with you.” Talk about a lady’s man!


  3. EllaDee says:

    Amazing Grace played by Nakai on a Native American Flute is one of my favourite pieces of music. It’s a song that resonates with many. Grace surely does find us, not the other way round. And it’s impossible to explain to people who don’t have a frame of reference. An enigma. In a society where there is so much inclination to label, categorise and draw a right or wrong line under much is still flux. But with grace and faith (and joy and hope) it’s possible to acknowledge what is and the possibilities of what may be.


    • Indeed Elladee. Not for nothing was despair designated a ‘sin against the holy spirit’ in the Catholic church. I am always in awe of people who are horribly wronged by murderers and terrorists but are able and willing to forgive – I often wonder if I would be able if I were in thier place.


  4. charliebritten says:

    Well done, MOH. And well done President Obama. I do believe in God btw. On Saturday, I went to see the staged version of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ at the Barbican, another story about racism. I know it’s not your neck of the woods, but it’s well worth a visit.


    • Thanks Charlie. I don’t think I’ll be able to make it to see the play (too much going on this summer) but will keep an eye out in case it tours. I loved the book when I finally read it about two years ago, rather late in life for such a major work.


Thanks for reading, please comment if it struck a chord

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.