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Film stills courtesy Amazing Grace Movie LLC

Issue 115, Winter 2021

The Watts Miracle

One of these mornings bright and fair / I’m gonna take my wings and fly the air


hen Aretha Franklin, born in Memphis and raised in Detroit, channeled Jesus Christ, born in Bethlehem and raised in Nazareth, and called for Lazarus of Bethany to come back from the dead, somebody or bodies in Watts heard and heeded her voice and got up walking like natural men. It was the second and final night of Franklin’s January 1972 performance recording of Amazing Grace in Los Angeles at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church. That night, Franklin, clothed in heart-chakra green and angel white, came to relay the good news in an old-time way: through a good Jerusalem rocking and the performance of a miracle. Footage of her calling Lazarus back from the tomb during “Mary Don’t You Weep” is missing from the album’s documentary film, released in 2018. To be sure, the footage and the film it finally became had a troubled technical and spiritual history. It was infamously lacking the clappers that facilitate the synching of video and audio, and it had to await the arrival of modern technology to reveal it like some DNA sitting in an evidence locker. And Franklin famously did not want it to be released and blocked it in all the ways she could until she flew home. When it was released, and we flocked to see it wherever it was screened, possessing and consuming it, willing it to fill us up full, we were collectively viewing it over Franklin’s dead body. 

I know why we all wanted to pull the film into our hearts with our eyes and ears and whatever other senses we could reasonably lay on it. The Amazing Grace album had been and still is a quintessential staple of Black American families, as synonymous with the Black domestic realm as the blues is with Saturday morning house scourings. It is a reminder of and testament to ’Retha’s gospel roots lest any of us got silly and forgot; in a pinch, it’s a damned good substitute for church. In addition to its ancestral resonance and spiritual beauty, it is the best-selling live gospel album of all time because it is the only gospel album delivered by a prophet. From the pulpit and the piano, Franklin preached the good news. In those years after the assassinations and the riots, when the world outside our homes shouted anew that we were not welcome, that we should be in bondage in prisons or schools, or else we should be cast out of our neighborhoods or this life altogether, the Amazing Grace album was a cherished reminder that victory would one day be ours.

As ravenous as anyone else, the thing I had most wanted to see in Amazing Grace was Franklin calling Lazarus. I had most wanted to see the miracle performed, had longed to see the shape of Aretha’s mouth when she called him forward, to confirm with my eyes that somebody was raised and had come walking in the church loosed of death. But alas it was not there. The editing of the documentary conspicuously skips from Franklin recounting what Jesus had said just before the resurrection—“for the benefit of you who don’t believe”—to just after that moment when Lazarus comes forth from the tomb alive and well. I wondered who in Watts was restored that evening? From what tombs did they emerge with full, warm breaths in their bodies again? Did they walk into a corner store on South Broadway and ask for water? I chuckled at Franklin’s protection magic on earth and in heaven. The last time Jesus raised somebody from the dead in front of a crowd of witnesses he was crucified. 

The practical reason I wanted to see the mechanics of the resurrection was for research purposes. I wanted to understand what went wrong two years prior when I had tried to call my daddy Arthur Lee Robinson, born and raised in Glendora, Mississippi, and how to make it right so it would work this time. In the hours after I learned of his death, I had set an altar for him on an old vanity with his picture, three white candles, some shells from a beach in Accra, a glass of water with a lot of ice, and his third-favorite vice, peanut M&Ms. I turned up “Mary Don’t You Weep” very loud, louder even, drowning the sound of my own moaning and keeping it there under water until it hushed. I went three miles from my house to Aretha’s birth house on Lucy Avenue to see if I could borrow some dirt from her yard to aid the miracle, but when I got there and got out, seeing the house proud and abandoned, I got shamed. Who was I to come over there all greedy and ask for a resurrection miracle from a thing that was itself fighting to live? I went on back home and waited. It was still yet early for him to hear me in that space between being absent from the body and being present with the Lord, but I would be ready and sure that my voice, along with that of Aretha calling Lazarus, would be the first and loudest on that line. Intercession was still possible. Hello? Come on back home. He would laugh so hard at how good he had gotten us, the greatest trick of his life. And we would never live it down, and that would be just fine. I was not ready to hear myself weep and moan.

In the years since my father’s death I have been in search of repair and restoration, and often I find it in Aretha’s voice somewhere, or at the ocean, or at the river, same difference. Sometimes I find it in the many voices that sing together with confidence about justice, about the freedom coming, about the freedom being made right now. I find it in the growing chants of “abolition now” on new and surprising corners. Other times those voices find me, like those young people’s horns and drums in the neighborhood school’s marching band that wake me from August heat naps saying, yes, we are still here; and yes, freedom is coming. Still other times I am just still and waiting, not even sharpening my oyster knife.

“Mary Don’t You Weep” is one of many spirituals that promises deliverance and repair by telling of God’s other miracles, notably the parting of the Red Sea that facilitated the Jews’ escape from the pursuing Egyptian army. In early versions of the song, like one offered by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the mere capacity to run or fly away one day is enough of a covenant to hold a body over through the world’s injustice. The rewards in heaven will be plentiful, and any trauma of the earthly experience will be erased. (But I am still weeping and moaning here, on Earth, now, I say.) The spiritual deliberately marks the drowning of Pharaoh’s army in the Red Sea behind the escaping Israelites as empirical evidence of a coming salvation. As lagniappe insurance, God ensures the Egyptians’ dead bodies are visible on the beach. Because it focuses on a miracle in which the antagonist is not the devil, or a whale, or a lion, or a
difficult test from God himself, but rather an oppressive state, its army, and its leader, “Mary Don’t You Weep” is a central Black American rumination on divine justice and balance in the wake of enslavement and its immortal afterlives. 

In later versions of the song, like the 1958 version by Inez Andrews and the Caravans, the drowning becomes merely prologue to the apex miracle, the resurrection of Lazarus. Women’s versions tend to tell the full story of the weeping and mourning Mary and Martha, so listeners can understand the color and context of the women’s grief beyond the sometimes-chastising refrain, “oh, Mary don’t you weep / oh Martha don’t you moan.” It is the sisters’ grief, after all, that is at least in part the cause of Jesus’s own tears. In this version, the women can cease their mourning not solely because of Lazarus’s eternal life with God in heaven, but moreover because he will be restored to life again on Earth. It is one thing for the oppressor to be drowned; it is another for its victims to have their lives restored. It is the Caravans’ version, one tender with women’s grief and sensitive to their desires for a justice in the here and now and not just in the hereafter, that Aretha offers on Amazing Grace.

While you wait for the drowning, you fly. Hundreds of thousands of Black folks flew from the South after the Second World War in search of new lives and new freedom. They brought with them all the chocolate cities of the South, the songs and prayers and chants, the hoodoo and the haints, a quarter of the tambourines, and an eighth of the cooking. Daddy would say Los Angeles was just Mississippi niggas who got so tired of Texas they went all the way to the ocean. They made and grew themselves anew in that hot concrete. They were artists, revolutionaries, and glamorously famous; their descendants made streetwear, crip walking, and funk-inspired gangsta rap. But at the ocean, each generation found more war, familiar and foreign, but with similar outcomes. Still, they looked up at the sky and patted their chests and said, “Oh, but hallelujah, we ain’t in Texas/Mississippi/Arkansas/Louisiana no more.” It can be so hard to fly home.

Seven summers prior to Aretha’s flight from New York City to Los Angeles to perform the miracle on South Broadway, the Watts community in Los Angeles had been the site of an uprising against police brutality and a retaliatory massacre. Most of the thirty-four killed by the combined state forces of the police and the National Guard were Black. More than one thousand were injured, generations broken by memory and matter. What was destroyed materially by fire had already been tainted by the socioeconomic and psychic harm racism had wrought. It bore the mark and was not spared. Sometimes while you wait for the drowning, you try clearing the land with hot orange light and beginning again. 

In the years leading up to that 1965 summer, and predictably in the years after, the story was the same as it was everywhere up South and out South and down South—housing conditions were dangerous, education was racist, police were abusive, destructive, murderous. In the spring of 1962, police had raided and desecrated a Nation of Islam mosque, injuring several people and killing Ronald Stokes. In 1964, non-Black California voters repealed, via a proposition vote, a fair housing act that would have ensured that the swelling numbers of Black people redlined in South Central Los Angeles could more freely move about the city and state and away from conditions of repression and harm. After the years of crescendo, the raucous and massacring wave of summer ’65, and the inevitable crash to sameness thereafter, some people thought that if they changed the name or didn’t call it Watts anymore, the murdered and the survivors and the inheritors would forget. But they carried the memories everywhere in their mouths. Plus, even if you burn it down, a place never forgets its own name. Sometimes fire is the only way to make sure somebody remembers.

Migration, or birth or death, is flight: flying to earth from some otherworldly space, moving across the world from place to place, flying home to the sky again. Prayer or ritual or worship is intercession: sequential chants of magic aimed toward an outcome. Resurrection, rebirth or re-living, is reparation: to put something back as it was and also anew. Black people had moved everywhere across space and time in search of a place to just be and after all of that Tulsa was Atlanta was Detroit was Buttermilk Bottom was The Other Side of the Tracks was only as different as they could make it, which was often a marvel, given they were up against the same kind of white folks everywhere. After what Pharaoh had done to the people of Watts for so many years, a flight, a prayer, and a resurrection or few was the tiniest but mightiest kind of balm.

With James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, Aretha and her band prepared a way for the resurrected to come through. The revival begins at the end of “God Will Take Care of You,” as the sounds of the sanctified church, that migrating bass, the organ, the tambourine, and all manner of percussion—hand, feet, and drum—electrified New Temple. In concert with the ancestors, the saints opened a portal from that side to this one for whosoever, persecuted on earth, wanted to come forward again, for just a moment or for the rest of a new, natural life, and dance in praise. Then on “Old Landmark,” Franklin indicates that she is about to preach in the old way, to show and not just tell, to perform an old miracle. Kneeling and praying and telling the story. From there, “Mary Don’t You Weep” is a calculated, intentional march toward the miracle at the ocean. I don’t need to see it on some tape to know it happened.

Entries into and exits from this world, however they come, by whoever’s hands, a loving strong catch of a midwife on Lucy Avenue or strangling state hands that steal breath on Every Street, always mean flight. They mean heaven. They mean tables prepared for us. They mean death came and we still won because we’ll never grow old. For the rest of us, they mean a whole lot of weeping and moaning while we wait for the drowning, and finally, the restoration, where we all come out again walking like natural men.  

Zandria F. Robinson

Zandria F. Robinson is a writer and cultural critic from Memphis. She is the author of This Ain't Chicago: Race, Class, and Regional Identity in the Post-Soul South and co-author of Chocolate Cities: The Black Map of American Life. Her writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, The Believer, and New York Times Magazine.