Watching a video of this amazing interview between Bernice Johnson Reagon and the recently late beloved beloved Vincent Harding for his Veterans of Hope project, I was knocked out about what she had to say about a collective “I.”
Starting out by explaining the emphasis in Western choral music on blending, she explains:
…there’s an aim for a blend so you cannot distinguish where the parts are coming from. With congregational singing, I could drive up to the church and they could be singing and I could tell you who was there. Because, the individual timbres of the voice never disappear. And so one of the things I think that’s important for democracy is that congregational style, where the individual does not have to disappear. And it does not operate as an anti-collective expression. There are some others in the repertoire with the I songs: “We shall overcome” was originally “I shall overcome”; “We Shall not Be Moved” was “I shall not be moved.” I’m so glad they didn’t change, “This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine”…but if you’ve got a group of people, and all of them are saying I, you actually have a group. If you have a group of people and they’re singing WE, you don’t know who’s going to do what. And you know just try to organize something. You say, like this, you know, “We gonna bring food tonight.” And if you are the nervous wreck organizer, you will leave that meeting and you will end up bringing enough food for everybody because you won’t know who or if anybody’s going to bring anything. So you’re the one who comes in, you’ve got the vegetables and the chicken and the cake, just in case because nobody said, “I’m bringing this, I’m bringing…you don’t get a group until you get some individuals who will say, “I’m in.” And so you’ve got these collective expressions in the African American tradition that are “I” songs and those songs are the way to express the group.
However, one of the wonderful things about the evolution of songs, is that the change of some of the songs to “we” document black people coming together with a white left, predominantly white left, that’s heavily intellectual about collectivism and group, and they like to say, tell us very quickly, “I means individualism and we expresses the group. We means we’re together.” And we looked at ‘em and we said (chuckles) “Okay, if you need it….because basically the important thing is that you’re here and if in order to be here you need this we, we gonna give you this we, you got this we, we gonna do all the “we”s you need.” And so you get a document of when another presence joined in collaboration and commitment against racism by following the changes in the words of the songs.