Mahalia Jackson is a genius. Or Mahalia Jackson has genius. The man I am with is trying to make a distinction. I am uncomfortable with his need to make this distinction because his inquiry begins to approach subtle shades of racism, classism, or sexism. It is hard to know which. Mahalia Jackson never finished the eighth grade, or Mahalia's genius is based on the collision of her voice with her spirituality. True spirituality is its own force. I am not sure how to respond to all this. I change the subject instead.
We have just seen George Wein's documentary, Louis Armstrong at Newport, 1971. In the auditorium a room full of strangers listened to Mahalia Jackson sing "Let There Be Peace on Earth" and stood up and gave a standing ovation to a movie screen. Her clarity of vision crosses thirty years to address intimately each of us. It is as if her voice has always been dormant within us, waiting to be awakened, even though "it had to go through its own lack of answers, through terrifying silence, (and) through the thousand darknesses of murderous speech."
Perhaps Mahalia, like Paul Celan, has already lived all our lives for us. Perhaps that is the definition of genius. Hegel says, "Each man hopes and believes he is better than the world which is his, but the man who is better merely expresses this same world better than the others." Mahalia Jackson sings as if it is the last thing she intends to do. And even though the lyrics of the song are, "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me," I am hearing, Let it begin in me.
Added: Monday, July 14, 2014 / From "Don't Let Me Be Lonely" (Graywolf Press, 2004). Used with permission.
Claudia Rankine is the author of four collections of poetry, including the award-winning Nothing in Nature is Private. In The End of the Alphabet and Plot, she welds the cerebral and the spiritual, the sensual and the grotesque. Her latest book, Don't Let Me Be Lonely-a multi-genre project that blends poetry, essays, and image-is an experimental and deeply personal exploration of the condition of fragmented selfhood in contemporary America. Rankine is also the author of a play, Provenance of Beauty: A South Bronx Travelogue, which is performed on a bus ride through the Bronx. She is also the founder of the OPEN LETTERPROJECT: Race and the Creative Imagination, and co-produces a video series, "The Situation," alongside John Lucas. Rankine co-edited the anthology American Women Poets in the 21st Century: Where Lyric Meets Language. Her latest book, Citizen: An American Lyric, is due out from Graywolf in October 2014.