We lost two of the last giants from an era in America where Jesus sent men and women out into the field to teach us the word who were not a homophobes or elitist. Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker and Edwin Hawkins carried the message of Christ's promise by being well read, preaching, playing and singing to the glory of God without the judgement.
As a young boy growing up in the inner city of Brooklyn, attending church most Sunday's I heard my shero, my pastor's daughter Mae Chambers and Choir member Mary Cooper belt out those incredible lyrics written by Edwin and Walter Hawkins. Your life was transformed listening to those heavenly songs affirming all were welcomed! Those songs taught me to honor all of God's children. They taught me that poverty and hate were real in our society but each of us could do something about it. I wanted to sing in those choirs so bad but I knew I was not worthy at the time. I had greater soul searching to do as I figured out my personal walk in life.
My work would involve music but pitched to the world in my own way. As my journey continued I would meet and become friends with the late Minister Wyatt Tee Walker. I would read his words, sit at his feet and listen to him preach at Canaan Baptist Church in Harlem and invite him to speak at Cornell University and Harvard University. And though he was no Rev Chambers from my Upper Room Baptist Church, he fed me measured intellectual and emotional sermons that prompted me to do further investigation and study.
I went into the world with those sermons and songs packed in my nap sack always readily available to me in a time of doubt or fear. "Oh Happy Day" was played on the same Black radio station as the Motown release " I was born this way." The late DJ Frankie Crocker played them back to back and it taught me that the "fire and brimstone" attitude of many of the parishioners in the church was less a reflection on the weakness of the word of Jesus and more a reflection on broken Black men and women, survivors of rape, incest and overall sexual and physical abuse. I realized it was simpler to remain stupid than to muster up the energy and courage to challenge your illiterate grandmother and broken father's world of yes and no, wrong and right. Wyatt Tee Walker and Edwin Hawkins empowered us with coping skills to deal with our confusion and possible shortcomings. I walk tall in my complexed identity as a strong Black man committed to challenging those in my community who would choose hate and judgement over love and acceptance of God's entire flock.
These great men have transitioned and I see no replacements for them. I keep them alive in my heart and in my work. My recent trip to China, I used Wyatt Tee Walker's scholarship particularly his "Music Tree" which underscores the fact that American musical cultural expression is wholly rooted in the African Diaspora and is for all practical purposes an African Centered art form mostly generated from African American Negro spirituals. Each semester for the last thirty years I have invoked the name Wyatt Tee Walker, Edwin, Walter and Tramaine Hawkins, part of America's musical and moral royalty.
I pay tribute to these two great men today. They gave me the real lesson in Black male masculinity, poise, grace, class, intellectual prowess, charisma, and a centeredness that does not isolate anyone from stepping into your personal space and taking a closer look at the glory of what God has created in each of us. They were living monuments of lives well lived. We will miss them but never forget what they imparted to all who encountered them.