I am part of a small group in Washington DC called the Cross River Dialogue. We are a group of Jews, all of whom are white and living on the west side of the Anacostia River, and non-Jews, all of whom are Black and living and/or working east of the Anacostia River.
I talk a little more about the Cross River Dialogue in the book, Rethinking Exodus, and I am also posting conversations with fellow dialogue participants.
The dialogue, now known as CRD-1 — because there is now a CRD-2 — has been meeting for close to two years. Last spring, when we’d been meeting for about nine months, we held a Passover seder together. It was planned in advance as a relatively straightforward Jewish seder, not an interfaith or intercultural program. But we closed with an impromptu singing of Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song” at the suggestion of one participant.
I thought that was a perfect reminder of what we share — the need to emancipate ourselves from mental slavery, for example, and a desire to join with others in singing songs of freedom — and also a good reminder of what we do not share: Some at our table are descendants of those who came over on merchant ships and some are not. No matter how involved we are together in cross river and cross community work, the effects of years of slavery and oppression weigh differently on different members of our group.This idea of who came on what ship reminds me of two songs:
- “We’re in the same boat, brother,” by Lead Belly
- “The Same Boat Now,” by 1960s folk singer Byron Walls
We’re in the same boat, brother
To refresh all our memories: Huddie William Ledbetter was a very influential U.S. folk and blues singer. Even if you somehow never heard of Lead Belly, you probably know “Midnight Special” or “Goodnight, Irene.” He died in 1949 and was born sometimes in the 1880s — I’ve seen 1885, ’88, and ’89 listed as his birth year.
“We’re in the same boat, brother” includes images of the biblical stories of Jonah and Noah. The chorus goes “if you shake one end, you’re gonna rock the other, it’s the same boat, brother.”
All in the same boat
Another ship song that comes to mind is called, “All in the same boat now.” The key line, “We all came here on different ships, but we’re all in the same boat now,” is often attributed to Martin Luther King but no one seems to know when he said it.
The lyrics of this same boat song were written by Byron Walls, of the 1960s folk group “The Travellers.” I looked up the lyrics because I hadn’t heard the song in many years. Here is are a few lines:It’s a story as old as this country is young,
And the red, white and blue stand for freedom,
And justice for all, that’s the hardest one somehow,
We all came here on diff’rent ships,
but we’re all in the same boat now.
Whether Christian, Sikh or Moslem, Buddhist or Jew,
We’re a patchwork quilt of customs, menus, and views,
Diversity is who we are
so welcome ev’ry one,
We’re a coat of many colors,
We are Americans.
–“The Same Boat Now”
lyrics by Byron Walls, of the 1960s folk group “The Travellers”
The Rona/COVID-19: The Same Boat?
I’m not sure when “All in the same boat now” was written. I know I heard it sometime in the early 1980s. And I’m sure that, at the time, I applauded. But it’s been a long time since I’ve been up for singing about the “red, white and blue” standing for freedom.
I spent part of yesterday on a call discussing how our various communities are coping with COVID-19, and have been grappling, in various ways, for weeks now with the huge disparities in resources between Black and white communities here in the city (the focus of our CRD-1; there are many varied communities here with their own needs). The differences are stark. Basic infrastructure of housing and public health and transportation — all of which influence how neighborhoods will experience the Rona — differ greatly. In addition, closing of the schools really exacerbates the digital and learning divides.
At this point I have to say that this song, which I know I once liked, doesn’t even strike me as aspirational anymore. At this point it feels kind of confused, maybe even cruel.
Even the Lead Belly song…which I continue to find true: If we shake one end, we rock the other…. It’s pretty clear that some parts of this common boat — hoping this metaphor is not stretched to the breaking point — are in far better shape and better able to weather a storm than other parts of the same boat.
What’s has this to do with Exodus? To return to the discussion from Daily Note Episode 3…that idea about Exodus being about joining together to march, and how that metaphor breaks down. Yes, our liberation is all tied up together, and we have to figure out how to get out of this Narrow Place together, somehow. But we’re not helping ourselves — we’re not helping anyone — by assuming that we’re all marching together with a shared past and similar provisions.
NOTE: This post differs in minor ways from the Daily Note Episode 5. Today is the first time in the daily notes that I wrote a sort of outline for the episode and prepared notes in advance…and then I lost them before I could post them here. This enterprise is a work in progress!
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