I have been going to a Lutheran leadership ministry for four summers. It is only a week long, but each time I go it feels like a year. One of ways in which I remember the ministry is by creating a playlist of some of the songs that we sing. Some of these songs include “Lean on Me” by Bill Withers, “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen, and “How Could Anyone” by Libby Roderick.
While I was reading Farming While Black, I discovered that the lyrics of “How Could Anyone” were printed out, and it brought up fond memories as I read it. After reading the lyrics in the context of Farming While Black, I was intrigued to hear Penniman’s perspective on spiritual traditions: “While I study and cherish the Torah, I felt a great and expansive joy to learn that my Indigenous African ancestors had an oral sacred literature as long and as deep as many others combined.” (56) This discovery does not alienate one tradition from another, but instead is an impetus to study more of her African lineage’s traditions: “One at a time we saluted the four directions and kissed the ground to the west. Then we lay down on the banana leaves…[to go to] our ancestral home.” (62) Penniman dives into the traditions without any judgement, and that is a quality I hope to emulate. When considering Penniman’s spiritual journey, the lyrics of “How Could Anyone” take on a new meaning. I keep referring to the lyrics but not pasting them here, so here are the lyrics:
How could anyone ever tell you
You were anything less than beautiful
How could anyone ever tell you
You were less than whole
How could anyone fail to notice
That your lovin’ is like a miracle
How deeply you’re connected
To my soul. (Repeat from top) (66)
This song is a radical song for anyone who is struggling with their sense of self-love or self-worth. It is also valuable from those who have been historically oppressed, and who feel alienated from a society that seems to have one ideal mold of the perfect person.
When I have sung this song with my peers at the ministry, I have the understanding that even though we are singing this song, the message is from an Abrahamic God. After I have read into the possibility from the Penniman reading that this song could come from multiple gods or from even the people themselves, this seems more revolutionary. Instead of a placating song, as if it would have come from a higher power, this song places the power in the hands of the people singing, in order for them to be brought together. The first four lines of the song, “How could anyone ever tell you / You were anything less than beautiful / How could anyone ever tell you / You were less than whole” focus on personal empowerment. The individual is elevated to a beautiful, whole person, something that may be forgotten in the day to day. The last four lines, “How could anyone fail to notice / That your lovin’ is like a miracle / How deeply you’re connected to my soul”, emphasize interpersonal bonding. The individual is not only elevated, but is also valued by others, and these two characteristics are traits we look for in our day to day lives.
I think this song is beautiful no matter where the message is coming from. As Penniman notes, “We have used our song traditions to remind us of home, to keep our spirits high, to express our discontent, and to plan resistance and rebellion.” Ultimately, this song expresses a radical and universal statement: to be beautiful in mind, body, or spirit and to be loved by others.