Human Heroics in Uniting an Old Culture to New Religion.
Reviewed by Charles Prejean
Vol. 12, No. 3, 1990, pp. 17-18
Ain’t you Got a Right to the Tree of Life? Recorded and edited by Guy and Candie Carawan, with a preface by Charles Joyner and an afterword by Bernice Johnson Reagon. (The University of Georgia Press, 1989, second edition, 240 pp., $29.95.)
This important book restates the values and updates the chronicle of a unique pattern of life, one guided, perhaps even driven, by influences of religion. It is the life story of the people of Johns Island, South Carolina. It tells of the natural striving of people to practice the human way in an organized society and under circumstances of inappropriate human intervention and interdiction. It is the story of the power and determination of the human will to live fully.
More particularly and dramatically stated, Ain’t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? is a story of human heroics achieved by adherence to norms of a traditional African cultural folkway fused to a personalized and deeply internalized Christian faith. Seemingly, the result of this particular union of an older culture to a newer religion has enabled the people of Johns Island to transcend proscribed natural and legal rights and privileges.
This resembled much less humble submissiveness to the abuses of racism and misguided legal authority than recognition that undeserved oppression is a reflection of the depravity of the oppressor. Other people’s depravity is not an excuse to abort one’s effort to live well the precious and divinely-given gift of life. The experience contends, implicitly and explicitly, that life is bearable. It is a position sustained, from every indication, by what is evidently a highly developed consciousness of the Divine Presence in daily living. Endurance and the determination to live well is guided by belief that God will, so to say, “see them through”; or that wickedness will eventually succumb to the greater power of goodness.
The essential contribution of the traditional African cultural folkway seems to be ability to energize the human faculties of body and soul, the whole person, in the act of worshiping and daily living: worshiping and daily living are the same. It is body and soul in an ancient motion, tried and proven over the ages.
The Carawans, perhaps because of their own sincerity, perceptiveness, and appreciation for the quality of line practiced by the people of Johns Island, allow them to tell their own stow of life as they and their ancestry experienced it through the ages and under changing social orders. And the people do in these pages tell it through personal statements and songs’ lyrics that speak of difficulties, but even more of hope, faith, and appreciation for the many munificences of Divine Providence. Their songs’ music echoes the same, with variegated rhythmic patterns manifesting the whole person.
Photographs also tell the story of simple but elevated living under miserable circumstances. Looking at these photographs and recalling the content of the personal statement, one sees strength of character and determination being projected, not despair and submissiveness. The photographs of children at work, play, and as members of a family structure speak of wholesomeness and hopefulness.
The manner in which the people of Johns Island struggle, endure and progress reveal a human constructiveness that can serve for emulation. The personal statements and the words of songs, though they sometimes speak of pain and misery, reveal no hatred, bitterness, vindictiveness, or revenge. The Johns Islanders not only process to be, but are demonstrating that they are indeed a “New Testament People.”
Furthermore, given the regularity, spontaneity, and totality of their worship; the heightened consciousness of the presence of the Divine in their lives; the apparent ability to appreciate the preciousness of life, even its existence in those who oppress; the tendency to love rather than merely to give equal measure to others–all seem to evidence a people who have not only a highly developed level of Christian spirituality but also an exceptionally noble pattern of living, one consistent with our acclaimed ideal natural ways of the species. It is a life that finds no quarter in substituting illusions for reality. It is one that finds purpose and comfort in the unending struggle to have practice conform to universally cherished and spiritually sound beliefs.
I would be remiss not to mention the significance of the
leadership role of Esau Jenkins in guiding and sustaining the modern growth and development of this community. He was a “Race Man” in the truest sense. His concern was for the social, civic, economic, and spiritual uplifting of the entire community. His leadership reflected the same quality of selflessness that was evident in the best of that historical African American leadership which has contributed to the progressive strides of the race. His leadership was bonded by the aspirations, traditional culture, and spiritual strengths of the community. It surfaced and was fed by a combined sense of life’s requirements and of a commonly shared life-force. Esau Jenkins’s legacy can still be observed in the continued civic and institutional progress of the community.
It is now the contemporary generation’s “watch” and its responsibility to determine how to incorporate the benefits of culture and religion in the lives of its members, under the circumstances of the changed society. Hedonism and materialism in the Sea Island environs notwithstanding, it is too soon yet to lament the disappearance of the traditional expressions of culture and religion. It may be that this influence is simply biding time, before evolving into an appropriate expression under the changed circumstances of the contemporary period, just as perhaps was the case in preceding social orders.
Charles Prejean, longtime executive director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives, has been one of the outstanding leaders of the rural South. He is now teaching political science at Xavier.