Common Ground Ridiculed

 “ ‘Come By Here,’ a song deeply rooted in black Christianity’s vision of a God who intercedes to deliver both solace and justice, by the 1960s became the pallid pop-folk sing-along ‘Kumbaya.’ And ‘Kumbaya,’ in turn, has lately been transformed into snarky shorthand for ridiculing a certain kind of idealism, a quest for common ground.
   Yet the word nobody wants to own, the all-purpose put-down of the political moment, has a meaningful, indeed proud, heritage that hardly anyone seems to know or to honor. Only within black church circles can one, to this day, still hear ‘Come By Here’ with the profundity that Mr. Gordon did almost a century ago.

   ’ ‘Kumbaya’ lets you ridicule the whole idea of compromise,’ said John G. Geer, a political scientist at Vanderbilt University in Nashville who is an expert in negative campaigning. ‘And that ridicule is the latest manifestation of the polarization that the country is dealing with.’

   Experts like Stephen P. Winick of the Library of Congress say that it is likely that the song traveled to Africa with missionaries, as many other spirituals did, but that no scholar has ever found an indigenous word ‘kumbaya’ with a relevant meaning. More likely, experts suggest, is that in the Gullah patois of blacks on the Georgia coast, ‘Come By Here’ sounded like ‘Kumbaya’ to white ears.

   In the civil rights era, ‘Come By Here’ was a call to action. In the cynical present, essentially the same song has become a disparagement of action.
   ‘If you say someone’s engaged in ‘kumbaya,’ you’re saying that person isn’t serious,’ said Thomas S. De Luca, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York who studies political rhetoric. ‘It’s designed to disempower someone who’s trying to do something.’

See article at: NYT 20Nov10: “A Long Road From ‘Come by Here’ to ‘Kumbaya’ “