About Wendy

Wendy Schuman is a writer and editor specializing in family and social issues. She has worked for major magazines and websites, and is currently writing a book on baby boomers. She is available to discuss your editing and writing needs. More About Wendy…

Kumbaya Revisited

I’m very excited to be working on…

Kumbaya Revisited: How Baby Boomer Power Can Help Fix the World

Here’s a summary…

Millions of Americans remember the 1960s as a time of great hope and idealism. We cared about peace, love, and freedom, and we did something about them. Many joined together in the civil rights movement, marched for peace,  drew strength from feminism, and gave birth to the green movement, against a timeless background of folk music and Beatles songs. This generation accomplished so much, and the world was permanently changed by our efforts. Though we may have put aside some of our idealism in favor of personal pursuits, our dreams of making a difference have never truly disappeared. Now that the kids are grown and the frenetic pace of career-building has slowed, we’re wondering: What’s next? What do I want to do with the rest of my life?  How can I recapture the energy and compassion of the ’60s in a meaningful, last best chance to make a difference in the world?

Kumbaya Revisited provides an inspiring roadmap for the 78 million boomers born between 1946-1964. Tackling both the economics and social concerns of this generation, I interview inspirational people who are seeking–and finding–ways to repair the world in the next stage of their lives.

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A Few Notes on ‘Kumbaya’

Why would I name my book Kumbaya Revisited? After all, it’s hip to make fun of “Kumbaya.” The media use it as shorthand for naive and ineffectual hand-holding, a feel-good gesture that accomplishes nothing.  Some examples:

  • Blog comment on politico.com: “Hilldebeast was a carpet bagger, er, senator. Think she would be part of this coven of Kum-by-Ya?….”
  • Washington Times editorial:  ”A Kumbaya Congress: The kumbaya quest for peace and love in American politics has hit a new low. Sen. Mark Udall, Colorado Democrat, has proposed that as a symbolic stab at the ‘nasty partisanship’ in government, members of Congress should abjure the tradition of sitting in party blocks during the State of the Union address and instead intermingle. Perhaps they all should hold hands while the president is speaking too.”
  •  New York Post headline:  ”WHY ‘KUMBAYA’ CAN’T FIGHT TERROR”

Mostly right-wingers–but occasionally liberals too–join in the derision. In a recent New York Times piece, author Sam Freedman pointed out that while running for president, Barack Obama once said, “The politics of hope is not about holding hands and singing, ‘Kumbaya.’ ” Filmmaker Michael Moore, noting  President Obama’s call for bipartisanship after the midterm elections, said, “You don’t respond with ‘Kumbaya.’ ” (Note how bipartisanship and Kumbaya have become synonymous.)

When I thought of my book title almost a year ago, I was conscious of the negatives. But I strongly believed it was time to reclaim Kumbaya for the purpose it served in the ’60s: uniting our generation to make a better world.  Then, just today, I learned something new about Kumbaya that powerfully affirmed my choice.

First, a little history. The African-American spiritual “Come by Here, Lord” was recorded by folklorists in the 1920′s and ’30s. Though some believe the song came from Africa, experts suggest it may have originated with blacks in the Georgia Sea Islands whose Gullah language elided “Come by Here” into “Kumbaya.” The lyrics were a cry for God to come help his suffering people, reflecting the struggles of African-Americans  in the era of Jim Crow and lynch mobs. Churches took it up throughout the South, and it became an anthem of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s.

Like millions of other baby boomer kids in the ’60s, I learned Kumbaya from Pete Seeger and Joan Baez records. Easy to sing, easy to harmonize to, just three chords on the guitar. We sang it at antiwar rallies,  folk gatherings, and yes, campfires. And like much of the folk music and protest music then, it brought us together for a common cause.

What I learned today sheds new light on the meaning and importance of Kumbaya–and should forever silence its critics.

Dr. Vincent Harding, a theologian and speechwriter for Dr. Martin Luther King, was interviewed on the NPR program Krista Tippett on Being. In recalling the civil rights movement in which he played a great part, he turned to Mississippi Freedom Summer and the 1964 murders of three college students, Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner, and James Chaney who had come to Mississippi to register voters. In his gentle, compassionate way, Dr. Harding spoke of the role Kumbaya played at that watershed moment.

Read Dr. Harding’s powerful story below (you can also listen to the NPR clip here).

“Whenever somebody jokes about ‘Kumbaya,’ my mind goes back to the Mississippi summer experience where the movement folks in Mississippi were inviting co-workers to come from all over the country, especially student types to come and help in the process of voter registration and freedom school teaching and taking great risks on behalf of that state and of this nation.

“I was deeply involved with the orientation that took place at Williams College in Oxford, Ohio. It was two weeks of orientation, and the first week was the week in which Schwerner and Goodman and their beloved brother Jimmy were there. They left that first week, and it was during that time that they had left the campus that they were arrested, released, and then murdered. Word came back to us at the orientation that the three of them had not been heard from. And immediately we knew that they were probably dead.

“Bob Moses, the magnificent leader of the orientation and so much of the work in Mississippi, got up and stopped things and told these hundreds of predominantly white young people who had come to do what they felt was good, necessary citizenship kind of work in Mississippi, he told them about the word we had received. And he also told them that if any of them felt at this point they needed to return home or to their schools we would not think less of them at all, but would be grateful to them for how far they had come.  He said let’s take a couple of hours to spend time, whatever you need to do to make this decision.

“What I found as I moved around the small groups that began to gather to help each other figure out what to do, was that in group after group people were singing ‘Kumbaya.’  ‘Come by here my Lord, somebody’s missing Lord, come by here. We all need you, lord, come by here.”

 ”I could never laugh at ‘kumbaya’ moments after that because I saw then that almost no one went home from there. This whole group of people decided that they were going to continue on the path that they had committed themselves to, and a great part of the reason why they were able to do that was because of the strength and the power and the commitment that had been gained through that experience of just singing together ‘Kumbaya.’” (end of clip)

At this particular “kumbaya moment,” no one was laughing. On the contrary, it gave people of our generation the strength to continue on the path of change, of making a better world. Kumbaya Revisited shows that we can do so again.