[EDITOR’S NOTE: In February, as a continuation of the work many of us are doing with Sacred Ground/Beloved Community here in Austin, Practicing Presence will feature reflections on Black spiritual leaders and teachers who have made indelible impacts on our spiritual journeys. While this blog has a history of publishing pieces from underrepresented voices throughout the year, we are featuring these reflections on Black mentors as part of Black History month.]
By Janet Davis
In her book, Women’s Faith Development, Nicola Slee notes that exemplars have a surprisingly powerful role in inspiring women to grow. In this month of celebrating the wisdom of Black voices among us, I want to honor one such person and share some of what she’s taught me: Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon.
My first encounter with Bernice was through the singing group she founded 50 years ago, Sweet Honey in the Rock. In my early 30’s, living in St. Croix, USVI, I heard the group perform live and had no idea why their soulful, rhythmic acapella sound held together by justice-loving, freedom-fighter lyrics resonated so deeply with me.
I wear garments touched
By hands from all over the world
The journey begins in Central America in the cotton fields of El Salvador
In a province soaked in blood
Pesticide-sprayed workers toil in a broiling sun
Pulling cotton for two dollars a day
I was yet to know the woman within myself who was captured by these starkly honest words. But I could not ignore what I had heard. It was as if a long-buried seed cracked open and took root in a part of me that Bernice’s music had uncovered.
Fast forward almost three decades to my second encounter with Bernice, now a featured speaker at a women’s conference in Mobile, Alabama. She defined herself as a songtalker and captivated a room, full of thousands of women, with her invitation to “let your light shine.” She noted for us that she never sings alone! I just happened to be in the process of writing a book on women’s struggle to shine. Now more awake to myself, I followed this heart trail back home and I took a deep, Google-shaped dive into Bernice’s work and message. Here are some highlights of how her freedom fighter wisdom further shaped my growth:
As a Civil Right’s songleader, Bernice found her voice. “The voice I have now, I got the first time I sang in a movement meeting, after I got out of jail . . . and I’d never heard it before in my life.”
Discoveries about finding my voice:
I learned that my voice would be found in doing more than thinking. And, that it’s never too late to find new aspects of myself!
Insights into the essential importance of non-compliance:
“The biggest thing I had to overcome was this voice inside that said, “If you do this you’ll kill yourself, you’ll get killed. “ It was just so loud. And stepping across that inner voice was really traumatic for me. I discovered that if you don’t cross that line, you never meet yourself, you never become who you can be unless you can get past your socialization, where that older generation has told you what they had learned about survival. You actually have to break ranks with it or you will never meet yourself. And it’s like stepping outside of a safety zone and it is very hard to do. But if you ever do it, you always know how to risk your life.”
As a very compliant child. I could not even tolerate watching an episode of Leave it to Beaver because he was always getting into trouble. I shaped myself for the delight of others to a fault. For a long time. Bernice’s words helped me recognize that non-compliance wasn’t optional in my path of growth.
Wisdom about the true nature of freedom:
We who believe in freedom cannot rest
We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes
Until the killing of black men, black mothers’ sons
Is as important as the killing of white men, white mothers’ sons
The list is long: Trayvon Martin, Eric Martin, Michael Brown, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd… and continues to grow with the death of Tyre Nichols just last week. We who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes for us all. My freedom is bound up with other’s freedom.
Vision for a never-ending call
Bernice entrusted the work of Sweet Honey in the Rock to other woman years ago. But that did not end her vision for her freedom fighter call.
As I leave Sweet Honey in The Rock, I commit myself as long as I have breath to continue to find a way for you to know I am still in the world. And though moving at a different rhythm and pace, my work, my voice, my life will remain grounded by the stance I took as a freedom singer in the Albany Movement more than 42 years ago.
As I age, my work, too, will change. I find in Bernice’s words inspiration, clarity and determination. I intend to make sure the world knows I am still a freedom fighter, too.
 Women’s Faith Development, Nicola Slee, 2004. pg 70-74.