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Interview with Ricky McKinnie

(Pictured L-R: Ricky McKinnie, Caleb Butler, Jimmy Carter, Ben Moore, Joey Williams, Billy Bowers)

by Alicia Carson

Ricky McKinnie is a member of the world-renowned Gospel quartet The Blind Boys of Alabama.

Amazing Grace is the song that tells the story of my life,” says McKinnie. “Through many dangers, toils and snares, I have already come,” he recites. “Unexpected things happen in life, but whatever happens, whatever challenges we face, God’s grace is sufficient. It is sufficient for everyone.”

McKinnie learned about God’s sufficient grace first-hand after losing his eyesight to glaucoma in 1975.

“I was with The Gospel Keynotes then, and we had just received a Gold Album for a song called Jesus You Been Good to Me, and we were flying kind of high. Before I went to bed that night, I noticed my vision was dim. But I wasn’t too concerned; I had a lot of scar tissue from a surgery I had for glaucoma, and so dim vision happened from time to time.”

When Ricky awoke the next morning, his sight was completely gone, but he believed the loss was just temporary. “I said to one of my friends, ‘I can’t see, man, but I know it’ll be alright in a couple of days.’ So we kept traveling and I kept looking for my sight to come back.” Gradually, his vision did return, but it was far from clear.

Not long afterwards, Ricky received a diagnosis that didn’t make sense to him. “My doctor kept telling me, ‘Ricky, you’ve lost your sight’ and I’d say, ‘Man, look, you’ve got to be crazy because I know I can see. When I get up in the mornings and go to wash my hands, I can see the faucet, I can see my hands; and when I play the drums, I can visualize the drums in my mind.’”

“That’s just it,” the doctor told Ricky. “It’s all in your mind. You only have phantom sight.” Phantom sight – or phantom eye syndrome – refers to visual hallucinations, which are commonly experienced as the ability to see diminishes. Even after eyesight is totally gone, a person may continue to “see” or visualize familiar images; this phenomenon can continue for days, weeks, even years after actual vision loss.

The doctor explained all of this to Ricky, but despite the diagnosis, Ricky still did not believe he was blind. Without inhibition, he continued to do what he loved: he played the drums for Gospel music groups and church choirs. “One night, as I was getting ready for choir rehearsal, I dropped one of my drumsticks, and when I went down to pick it up, the stick punctured my eye,” says McKinnie.

Ricky had immediate emergency surgery, and his punctured eye was replaced with a prosthesis. “Now, that made it absolutely clear that I couldn’t see; it settled any doubt I had in my mind,” he says.

Although Ricky finally acknowledged his vision loss, he did not use his disability as reason to abandon his personal ambitions or limit his goals. “I’m a dreamer,” he says. “I’ve always been a dreamer, and I found out that as long as you can dream the dream, do the work, and keep the faith, everything’s going to be alright.”

Ricky dreamed, and worked, and kept faith, and he confronted challenges that were new to him as a person without sight. “When I could see, I was the drummer of choice; when I lost my sight, people didn’t want to choose me. But I found out that just because you aren’t the person of choice doesn’t mean you don’t have the ability. People choose other people for all kinds of unfair reasons. But God’s not like that. That’s why I love the song Amazing Grace. You can’t earn God’s grace; it’s not something you have to qualify for. He gives it to you freely, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, because everybody is somebody in God’s sight.”

In 1990, Ricky McKinney joined The Blind Boys of Alabama as business manager, vocalist, and yes, drummer. Since then, The Blind Boys of Alabama have won 4 GRAMMY Awards, 2 Dove Awards, and were inducted into the Gospel Quartet Hall of Fame. In January 2008, they released Down In New Orleans.

For more information about Ricky McKinnie and The Blind Boys of Alabama, visit www.blindboys.com or www.rickymckinnie.com.

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