Roland Hayes: Blotting and Seeing

I recently heard the story of Roland Hayes on an episode of RadioLab. It’s part of a larger series called The Vanishing of Harry Pace. The whole series is interesting, but I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this particular episode featuring Roland Hayes. He was a ground-breaking musician in the first half of the 20th Century. In part because of his vocal talent and his unique ability to perform and interpret a broad cross-section of musical styles. But also — probably more significantly — because of the way he crossed racial barriers.

He was literally crushed and abused by an exploitative social- and industrial system, in early life. His mother was a slave in Georgia. And his family struggled to survive, as he grew up. When he was just sixteen years old, he was working at a factory to support his mother and his siblings. And while working, his clothes got caught in a conveyer belt. He got dragged through the machinery three times. The other workers at the factory thought he was dead when they pulled out his body. And even though he did survive the machinery, his chances for recovery were still minimal because of the medical care available to the Black community in Georgia at that time. Still, against all odds, he recovered.

He took this “second chance” at life to develop a singing career. The music industry was stacked against him, just like everything else was stacked against him. But he forged a career through perseverance, creativity, and a little bit of help from some friends. He got his big break when he was invited to sing “Were You There When They Crucified My Lord?” at a church service in England. Apparently, he brought so much emotion to his rendition — presumably from his own life experience and his own relationship with Jesus — that even the staid, stiff-lipped, British congregation was brought to tears. The next day, Hayes was invited to repeat his performance for the King and Queen of England. And from that point, his musical career took off.

He sang in concert halls across Europe — even though racist crowds frequently antagonized him — and his European success eventually paved the way for North American success. It’s a really inspiring story. Especially this one concert in Berlin. (But I’ll leave that one to RadioLab because you really should listen to the podcast episode). The thing that stood out to me the most, however, was a prayer that Roland Hayes would pray before every performance:

Lord, blot out Roland Hayes, so that they only see Thee.

Roland Hayes was a deeply religious man. He loved Jesus. And even though RadioLab is not a religious podcast, the faith of Roland Hayes showed through their story-telling. I’m quite confident that Roland Hayes, himself, would give God the credit for much of what he was able to accomplish. And able to endure. But the heart of Roland Hayes’ story is that his prayer was answered. Maybe even more than a lot of us would like it to be.

I mean: Had you ever heard of Roland Hayes before now? Did you learn about him in any of your history textbooks or history classes? Does he appear on any of your music playlists? Probably not. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that he never sold out to broader corporate interests. But I think he also succeeded in making more of Jesus than he made of himself. I don’t think it’s any accident that he found a broader audience through the song, “Were you There When They Crucified My Lord?“. Hayes was willing to identify with Christ in his crucifixion. And in his resurrection, as well. Even if that meant more glory for God than for Roland Hayes.

I regularly struggle with my own desire to leave a legacy. I want people to remember the name, “Eric Asp,” with a smile on their face and an interesting story to share. The truth of the matter is that I want to be admired. But Roland Hayes inspires me to keep praying that prayer. “Lord, blot out Eric Asp, so that they only see Thee.” Amen.

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