Your Playing Small Does Not Serve the World


Odetta died, at age 77, on December 2. I’ll always cherish her music, but I will especially cherish the message that she delivered to me, directly, just to me.

It happened a couple of years ago at the Trenton War Memorial, in a weeknight “on stage” concert that was one of Molly Sword McDonough’s many triumphs at that venue. At these intimate concerts, tickets were limited to how many could fit on stage with the performer. My ebullient friend and I – the two of us are unquenchable extraverts – could barely contain our excitement at seeing, live and in person, our folk song idol, and we arrived early to get front row seats.

Obit writers do a better job of telling about Odetta Holmes than I can here. The New York Times notes that she was one of the most widely known folk-music artists of the 1950s and ’60s, and that she influenced Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Janis Joplin. Richard Corliss of Time magazine says, “In her commanding presence, charismatic delivery and determination to sing black truth to white power, Odetta was the female Paul Robeson.”

What I can tell is about this concert. Odetta walked onstage on the arm of pianist Seth Farber (a fabulous performer in his own right, by the way). She would sing her trademark spirituals and protest songs, plus some less well-known challenge blues, as “Rich man, you’re living in your mansions, you don’t know what hard times mean…. If it wasn’t for the poor man, mister rich man, what would you do?”

Her very first song, though, was “This Little Light of Mine,” and she opened with a quote from Marianne Williamson’s “A Reason to Love.” She looked right at me, saying “I want to bring you something about you.”

For unquenchable extraverts like me, these words are validating, liberating. They make it OK to be myself, and they make it OK for you to be yourself.

“Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous. Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of god. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you.”

“We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in every one. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Odetta didn’t really speak just to me, of course. It just seemed so. Everyone in the audience – white, or black, at that moment, we all felt we were brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous, children of God. That’s the power of a great performer. The power of a person with a great spirit is to inspire others to manifest the glory of God.

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3 thoughts on “Your Playing Small Does Not Serve the World

  1. Princeton University is doing a tribute to the late folk singer Odetta on Thursday, April 9,a panel discussion at 4:30 p.m. in McCosh 10 and a concert at 8:30 p.m. in Richardson Auditorium, Alexander Hall. The panel discussion, “Odetta, Folk Music and Social Activism,” will feature: Albert Raboteau, the Henry W. Putnam Professor of Religion at Princeton; Judith Casselberry, a fellow in Princeton’s Center for African American Studies; Bernice Johnson Reagon, a cultural historian and musician; Matthew Frye Jacobson; a professor of American studies and history at Yale University; Oscar Brand, a folk musician and radio host; and Olivia Greer, a graduate student in New York University’s Department of Performance Studies who is studying Odetta. The panel will be moderated by Judith Weisenfeld, a professor of religion at Princeton. The concert will include spoken word tributes by poet Sonia Sanchez, actress Ruby Dee and choreographer Geoffrey Holder. Musicians Reagon, Guy Davis, Lizz Wright and Toshi Reagon will perform Odetta’s classic songs.

  2. What a profound comment “We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us. It is in every one. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”Very nice. Pat

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