When we were growing up, my dad would often exclaim to my sisters, brother and me, “You got the world in a jug with the stopper in your hand.” He most often said this when he noticed us indulging in some pleasurable event: be it watching our favorite television show or savoring every bite of our favorite food. We would laugh every time my dad said this. We did not know he was quoting a blues lyric, we thought this line was another example of our dad’s creative wit—there was no one that could make us laugh more than dad. But, as creative and witty as dad was, this jug line was not original to him. This was a line from the song, “Downhearted Blues” a song originally recorded by blues woman Alberta Hunter and later covered by Queen of Blues Bessie Smith in 1923. Indeed, as suggested by my father’s use of the line, this line would come to have signfiyn’ meaning within black culture and for black people. It would be this jug line that indeed made Downhearted Blues a mega hit within the black community.
For this line signified upon power. The fact that one could cork the big world in a small jug suggested the power of the weak to subdue the strong. And in our own way, my sisters, brother and I got this signifyn’ message. For while we did not know that dad’s jug wit came from the blues, we did know that he was not just trying to get us to laugh. We knew that through this line, dad was trying to teach us a lesson. My father was signifyn’on our privileged existence as black kids. Ours was not a blues household. Not only did we not play the blues at home, (at least not that I knew), but we did not lead a blues life. Dad was of the professional working class. Mom was a stay-at-home wife and mother. We lived in a neighborhood of other black professionals. We walked to a neighborhood school. Our stomachs were never hungry and our bodies were never cold. We had all of the necessities for living, and indulged in many of life’s luxuries. Ours was not the life that most black children in 1960s America enjoyed, let alone those in Dayton, Ohio. Ours was the life of what black sociologists E Franklin Frazier would call the “black bourgeoisie,” replete with Jack and Jill membership (an elite black social club), cotillions, boutillions, and European travel. We were not a blues people, yet my parents were determined to develop within us a blues bond.
In making us aware of our privilege, my father and mother were not simply calling our attention to those less fortunate than ourselves, they were most importantly connecting us to blues realities. They often warned us not to forget from whence we came. They reminded us that our grandparents were blues people, who migrated from the South to make a better life for their children. They cautioned us to never consider ourselves better than anybody else, regardless of how better off our life circumstances may be at the time—because they said “by the grace of God go we.” They reminded us that there was nothing inherently special about who we were that granted us a privileged life, and that there was nothing inherently wrong with those who did not enjoy such privilege. It had to do, they told us, with having certain opportunities. My parents held us accountable to the opportunities we had by diligently trying to instill within us a sense of responsibility to those less fortunate than ourselves. It was these messages about “privilege,” responsibility, and humility that was behind my dad’s “jug” humor. Through my father’s wit, this signifyn’ line was signfyn’ in yet another way: it was forging for four lucky black children a blues bond with blues people.
Why am I blogging about blues bonds on this day? Because this was what immediately came to my mind in the aftermath of the Presidential election. In the midst of the language of re-branding, I thought of blues bond, that which I have written about before. It seems to me, regardless of the political affiliation, what is called for if we are going to move toward a place a more just and equitable world is not a matter of re-branding, it is a matter of recognizing our intrinsic connections to those who “may be less privileged than ourselves.” We are those we call “them,” and they are us. Most importantly, the least of these continue to witness to God’s steadfast not to an unjust world, and stubborn yes, to right this world. Paul put it simply, “God has chosen the weak things of this world to confound the strong.” By the grace of God go them—for it is through our bond with the weak of the world that the very grace, of God can be found.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.