Positioned between two worlds of Harrisonburg, VA, and Lititz, PA, right now, I am sitting in Lititz, listening and watching virtual performances of the Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival broadcast from Harrisonburg. Under the direction of Amanda Gookin, the festival is both in-person and virtual as the nation emerges from the isolation of a pandemic.
This year the festival dates fall on Juneteenth, which gave the planners a marvelous opportunity to include a beautiful arrangement of the “Black National Anthem” — “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I invite you to listen with me and to feel the “shared jubilation and hope for the future” described by violist Diane Phoenix-Neal at the beginning of this video.
Both director Amanda Gookin and violist Diane Phoenix-Neal are members of a book club in Harrisonburg that Dr. Joanne Gabbin and I co-founded in 2019.
Today, in honor of the first Juneteenth after the establishment of a federal holiday on June 19th by the congress and the president of the United States, I offer two ways to celebrate.
Respectfully, especially if you are a white person. Remembering that Juneteenth has long been celebrated in the Black community.
Actively, an invitation for all. You can buy and read books (I recommend the one below). You can start your own book club. You can make a new friend.
The “shared jubilation” that Diane Phoenix-Neal described in her introduction to the music above, can best come from relationships across the color line. The good news is that such relationships do exist, and they can be deeply gratifying and enlightening. Last Wednesday our club met online with two authors, Betty Kilby Baldwin and Phoebe Kilby. Betty and Phoebe are members of the group Coming to the Table, which connects Black and White family members who want to “come to the table” and help build Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “beloved community.”
During our conversation Wednesday night, my friend and book club co-founder Joanne was so moved by the stories Betty and Phoebe told that tears began to flow. She made no attempt to hide them or brush them away, and I said to myself silently, “This woman has blessed my life in more ways than I can fathom.”
Of course, I am not alone. Joanne started an amazing poetry center called Furious Flower on the campus of James Madison University more than 25 years ago. Joanne selected the name from a Gwendolyn Brooks poem-sermon. This fragment is the source of both the poetry center and the book club names.
“The time cracks into furious flower
Lifts its face all unashamed
And sways in wicked grace.”
Below, Joanne is interviewed and tells the story of how her attempt to honor her friend Gwendolyn Brooks evolved into a center that has hosted most of the published African-American poets (including all the Black poet-laureates) and many aspiring young poets. Thousands of students past and present rise up and call her blessed also.