Celebrating the spirit of our collective voice.

Reclaiming Kumbaya

I have memories joining hands and singing this song in church, at meetings and around a campfire. The simple lyrics and harmonies infused the air with spirit and affirmed my sense of unity in the midst of struggle.
For African-Americans, Kumbaya was especially meaningful as it symbolized a call to God for comfort and redemption. Thomas Freedman wrote in his New York Times article that "Kumbaya is actually a soulful cry for divine intervention on behalf of oppressed people...suffering under the Jim Crow regime of lynch mobs and sharecropping."
"Kumbaya"  (the transliteration of "Come by Here" from the Gullah dialect) was first recorded in 1926, although it was likely sung by earlier generations of African Americans. It became popularized in the civil rights and social justice movements of the 60's, 70's and 80's, maintaining its reputation as a reverent call for unity.
But in the 90's, "the Kumbaya moment" was coined and the song got a bad rap. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines this term as "expressing ignorant or naive attitudes in the hope for peace or happiness."

I first heard the term in 1994 during a conversation I was facilitating on race. It initially generated a laugh from the group, which was followed by a long silent pause as the back-handed criticism sank in. After that meeting, I stopped singing the song.
Politicians and pundits soon adopted the term. In 2010, then White House Press Secretary Jay Carney said, "I don't think that anybody expects Washington to be a campfire where everybody holds hands and sings Kumbaya.  That's not what the nation's business is about."  More recently, Fox News commentator Judge Jeanine Pirro accused President Obama of  "engaging in Kumbaya politics."
It was in this context that I heard Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon share her thoughts about Kumbaya moments at the Race Forward conference in Dallas. She is most widely known as the founder of the women's acapella group Sweet Honey in the Rock, but her activist roots go back five decades to the early days of the Civil Rights movement.  Dr. Reagon's response was -
"When you sing Kumbaya in harmony, there is a seal that is created that is more powerful than any leader, preacher or agenda. The spirit of the collective emerges and no single voice is distinct from the other.
"The power of this seal lies in the simplicity of the song. Anyone, and everyone, can sing it. This makes those people nervous because they don't have a way to create the seal in such a simple and elegant fashion. So they put it down and dismiss it as 'a moment.'
"So when I hear people talk about a Kumbaya moment, I say 'these moments are a gift of comfort to you as you struggle. Why would you want to struggle without it?'"
Dr. Reagon then began to sing Kumbaya, and a chorus of 1600 voices joined her. I closed my eyes as I sang, remembering the reverence I had for this song and breathing in the spirit that infused the air. We had reclaimed Kumbaya through the strength and power of our harmony.
I think about the times that we are in, the struggles we face, and how we as social change agents put ourselves on the line each day. Thanks to Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, I can now sing this familiar spiritual, and be comforted once again.


Elemental Partners cultivates healthy and prosperous organizations through clarity of purpose, alignment of principles, and integration of systems.

For more information, visit us at www.elementalpartners.net or email us at kevin@elementalpartners.net



Kevin will be facilitating a session on Technical Assistance and Capacity Building for the White House Initiative for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on December 4 in Seattle.

Kevin and Puanani will be working with several clients in San Francisco from December 15-19.

I just finished reading "Freedoms Daughters: The Unsung Heroine of the Civil Rights Movement" by Lynne Olson. This book features the stories of over 60 women - including Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon - who risked their lives in the fight for civil rights. 

Kevin's missive - Finding a Decent White Man - is featured in the Winter 2015 issue of Yes! magazine.
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