The late great Gospel music artist Rev. James Cleveland’s “Peace Be Still” captures my thoughts surrounding recent events from Tucson to Tunisia, and also the observance of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birth.
This past week, poet Nikki Giovanni made a visit to DC. My first introduction to her writing (as a child) was the recording, “Truth Is On Its Way,” released in 1971. “Peace Be Still” is performed by the New York City Community Choir with Isaac Douglas — who takes some poetic and musical liberties — as the solo vocalist. It is the prelude to Giovanni’s reading of her poem “The Great Pax Whitie.” This rendition of “Peace Be Still” swells like the storm in the lyrics.
First verse and chorus:
Master, the tempest is raging.
The billows are tossing high.
The sky is o’er shadowed with blackness,
no shelter or help is nigh.
Carest Thou not that we perish?
How canst Thou lie asleep,
when each moment so madly is threat’ning,
a grave in the angry deep?
The winds and the waves
shall obey my will, peace be still.
Whether the wrath of the storm-tossed sea
or demons, or men, or whatever it be.
No water can swallow the ship where lies
the Master of ocean and earth and skies;
they shall sweetly obey my will,
peace be still, peace be still.
They all shall sweetly obey my will;
peace, peace be still.
Truth Is On Its Way” has followed me for many, many years. It’s always Cleveland’s “Peace Be Still” that I return to especially in turbulent times. For those of us who went to Sunday School, Cleveland’s lyrics are inspired by the story of Jesus and his disciples who are on a boat in the middle of the sea. Jesus is asleep, no doubt from the labors of his work. A violent storm brews. The men in the boat frantically try to wake Jesus before they’re all crushed and drowned by the waves. When Jesus wakes up, he calms the storm with the words “peace, be still.” (with comma)
This video on YouTube interprets the “Peace Be Still/Great Pax Whitie” cut from “Truth Is On Its Way.” I’ve never put images to the recording, but some people are moved to create in the new digital medium.
Nikki Giovanni wrote “The Great Pax Whitie” in 1968 and published it in Black Feeling, Black Thought, Black Judgement in 1970 in the toss and turn of the Civil Rights and Black Arts Movement. The poem trails and marks the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, El Hajj Malik El-Shabbaz (Malcolm X), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Robert Kennedy in 1969.
So the great white prince
Was shot like a nigger in texas
And our Black shining prince was murdered
like that thug in his cathedral
While our nigger in memphis
was shot like their prince in dallas
And my lord
ain’t we never gonna see the light
In more recent years, Givoanni, a distinguished professor, was at the scene of the tragic shooting at Virginia Tech. Some might say, “How could the author of The Great Pax Whitie speak to a community like Virginia Tech?” It was Nikki who gave the closing words/poem “We Are Virginia Tech” at the Virginia Tech memorial in 2007.
We do not understand this tragedy. We know we did nothing to deserve it, but neither does the child in Africa dying of AIDS; neither do the invisible children walking the night away to avoid being captured by a rogue army; neither does the baby elephant watching his community be devastated for ivory; neither does the Mexican child looking for fresh water; neither does a Appalachian infant killed in the middle of the night in his crib in the home his father built with his own hands being run over by a boulder because the land was destabilized. No one deserves a tragedy.
We are Virginia Tech.
Judging by the response, the message was clear. Truth is on its way.
The album “Truth Is On Its Way” sold over 100,000 copies in the first six months. Somehow one can’t mention “The Great Pax…” without the song “Peace Be Still.” They’ve become linked at the hip. Speaking from my music brain, I’ll dare to say “Peace Be Still” made the poem or the poem was written to further inspire James Cleveland’s masterpiece. And in the heat of the word, the movement, and the moment, Nikki says,
The rumblings of this peace must be stilled
be stilled be still