Black Spirituals as Poetry and Resistance
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Ten years ago, I worked as a researcher, conducting oral-history interviews for a project with the Weeksville Heritage Center. Weeksville is an extraordinary museum in central Brooklyn dedicated to the history of the free Black community that was founded there in 1838, when a Black stevedore named James Weeks first purchased the property. This occurred eleven years after Emancipation in New York, as Black residents organized to buy land in order to qualify to vote and build Black political power throughout the borough. Over one hundred years later, in 1968, the neighborhood organized again to preserve the last architectural remnants of the community, successfully fending off city efforts to destroy it during a campaign for urban renewal. The site has been a place of so many triumphs and reversals of history that it felt as though someone made it up. In a way, many people had — it was the culmination of the hopes and dreams of fugitives for freedom across hundreds of years. Part of my job as a researcher was to talk to those who had fought to preserve this history — ordinary Brooklynites who had done the extraordinary. Up until that point, I’d had the good fortune of mostly working at Black-history museums; at Weeksville, I felt I was directly in contact with the past.
Many of the people I interviewed were members or descendants of the Great Migration, the movement of more than six million Black Americans from the rural South to the country’s Northeast, Midwest and West beginning in 1916. These were people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They or their parents had come to New York City in the first wave of migration, before World War II. This particular section of Brooklyn, then, was still so connected to history that certain blocks could trace their lineage to particular sections of North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. Sometimes someone would say, “I was different growing up, because we came from South Carolina.”
Despite this, they were all united around a certain understanding. During my oral-history sessions, when I asked an elder about a person they were talking about, I would say gracelessly, “So, when did they die?” There would be a pause in the conversation — an intake of breath from whomever I’d posed the question to — as if I had reached out and pinched them. My boss, a much more skilled oral historian than I, would gently correct me: “When did they pass?” The conversation would then resume. When we spoke to white historians about the work we were doing — documenting the history of a community-led historic preservation project — we used the word “died” interchangeably. There was never the same pause.
THIS OBSERVATION TOOK on an even deeper meaning for me this past year. Black death is everywhere — we are dying of Covid at disproportionate rates and our deaths at the hands of police continue, despite the protests against them this past summer. More pressing is the callousness with which those in charge greet our deaths. As soon as the statistics on who was most likely to die of Covid became plain, it felt as if our former president, our Congress and many of our former and current governors had a distinct disinterest in doing anything to stop this plague. I have read the theorists who have pointed out that it has always been this way, that this country’s economy is in fact predicated on Black deaths. But it is one thing to read Ruthie Wilson Gilmore’s description of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” which appears in her 2007 book “Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California.” It is quite another to see it enacted in real time, on real people; to read the memorial threads on Twitter and the posts on Instagram for the young mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the teenagers — all lost to this matrix of state violence, a public health crisis and the prison industrial complex. There is a bruise spread across our communities that aches, that cannot be encompassed — and that is disrespected — by the finality of a word like “died.” “Died” ignores how one actually experiences the loss of a loved one or ones — the way they become no longer flesh but memory, the way they still exist in ritual and place, the way you look for them in the gestures and voices of their children and grandchildren.
It’s a fact of American life that the divide between Black and white affects us from the cradle to the grave. The differences in race coil through even our most intimate moments, into our psyches, even in how we conceive of death. “Passed,” “passed over,” “homegoing,” “sunset service,” “transitioned” — these are the words and euphemisms we use to describe an end to a life, to maintain a sense of personhood in a world that would take that from us even in death.
It is an impulse we have had since we came to this country in chains. Slavery in the Americas was a vehicle of mass death. Sugar plantations, in particular, were notorious for the short life expectancy of the Black men forced to work them. In South America and the Caribbean, death rates were so high that most of the enslaved died soon after arriving in the New World and before they could produce children. In the United States, life expectancies differed only because of our internal slave trade, which meant there was a financial incentive in many markets to keep slaves alive long enough to resell them and transfer them to other plantations. Laws declaring that children assume the same status as their mother meant that white male slave owners’ rape and sexual exploitation of Black enslaved women was as much an economic model as it was a tactic of psychological and physical torture. In this system, even the experiences of pregnancy and birth were tinged with the specter of social and physical death. In an act of resistance, Black people developed a poetry around death that attempted to assign it meaning outside of commerce and biology.
This imaginative leap is most on display in spirituals. These are the songs, born from rhythms of stolen labor, that enslaved Black people invented on the plantations. They are an early instance of the kind of doublespeak and double consciousness made famous by W. E. B. DuBois. They served, on the one hand, as a testament to the Christian experience but also, on the other, as a way to articulate a resistance to slavery. Spirituals, like many other musical genres across the African diaspora, draw on traditions from West Africa. But spirituals are unique to the experience of the enslaved in the United States — the same artistry and craft that birthed them here produced recognizable, but decidedly different, music across the Caribbean and South America.
The spiritual is a combination of African musical traditions and European Christian hymns. Its DNA is within every Black American musical tradition that followed — it led to blues and jazz and gospel, which led to R&B, which led to rock ’n’ roll, which led to hip-hop. Spirituals differ from what we understand as gospel because they were originally unaccompanied by music, created solely by a chorus of voices in a space without access to instruments, in a field, or cabin, or hollow. Spirituals are meditations on the triumph of the metaphysical over the physical realities of slavery. They attempt to answer profound questions: What happens to an enslaved person when she dies? What does it mean if her life has been so denigrated on earth? What does freedom feel like if your only access to it is in your imagination? What miracles of God are needed to get free?
In his 1845 memoir, “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” Douglass wrote:
[Enslaved people] would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out — if not in the word, in the sound — and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone.… They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed the prayer and complaint of souls boiling over with the bitterest anguish. Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit and filled me with ineffable sadness. I have frequently found myself in tears while hearing them.
While we created spirituals for ourselves, they served as a point of a misunderstanding for white observers. This phenomenon was most famously outlined by Douglass, again:
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion.
Even as Douglass acknowledged white observers’ complete misreading of the spiritual, he still went on to write: “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.”
Douglass was not alone in this misguided belief. Post-Emancipation, Black colleges had singing groups adept at performing spirituals tour the United States and Europe to raise funds for their endowments. They found white audiences who had never heard spirituals before and were willing to pay for the privilege and to treat the singers as celebrities, even as those same performers were denied accommodations because of their race. The most famous, and most imitated, group was the Fisk Jubilee Singers, founded in 1871 at Fisk University in Nashville, Tenn. Ella Sheppard, an original member of the group, wrote a memoir detailing her experience. As she recalled:
The slave songs were never used by us then in public. They were associated with slavery and the dark past and represented the things to be forgotten. Then, too, they were sacred to our parents, who used them in their religious worship and shouted over them. We finally grew willing to sing them privately … we practiced softly, learning from each other the songs of our fathers. We did not dream of ever using them in public. Had [the college’s white professors] suggested such a thing, we certainly [would have] rebelled. It was only after many months that gradually our hearts were opened … and we began to appreciate the wonderful beauty and power of our songs.
Of preparing to perform the spirituals for audiences, Sheppard noted that “to recall and to learn of each other the slave songs demanded much mental labor.” The memoir contains many astonishing moments but one of the most striking to me is Sheppard’s account of the group’s performance for a gathering of music critics in Germany. The Fisk Jubilee Singers had been warned beforehand that if they botched the concert, the critics would look on it as evidence of all Black people’s artistic shortcomings and laugh them off the stage. Sheppard describes the moment when they began to sing: “Then everything else forgotten, in a musical whisper. ‘Steal Away’ floated out so perfectly that one could not tell when it began.” I think about that moment. To have been in an audience who had never before heard the harmonies of a spiritual. To then have it amplified in the halls of a state-of-the-art auditorium, experienced with a resonance that had never been heard before.
SO THERE IS the spiritual as it was performed for white people and there is the spiritual as our own poetry, as a way to understand the interiority of enslaved people, who were repeatedly assumed to have none. In the middle of the 20th century, Howard Thurman, the great theologian (and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) chronicled the imagery embodied in Black spirituals. He found that they provide us with a glimpse of thoughts and feelings of enslaved people that were otherwise erased from recorded history. Spirituals are a key primary source in understanding how enslaved people made meaning from the world around them. With their references to the natural world, they offer a glimpse of the experiences enslaved people had outside of labor — what it may have felt like to watch the sun rise, to walk beside a river, to hear water flow, to watch a sparrow fly. In recognizing this aspect of the spiritual, we honor the consciousness of the enslaved and thus continue the resistance to the enslaver’s definition of reality.
In 1945, Thurman wrote a slim, elegant volume called “Deep River: An Interpretation of Negro Spirituals.” In it, he points to three sources on which enslaved people drew in their creation of spirituals: the Old Testament, the world of nature and their interior lives. In particular, Thurman notes that “the Jewish concept of life as stated in their records (in the Old Testament) made a profound impression on this group of people, who were themselves in bondage. God was at work in all history: He manifested himself in certain specific acts that seemed to be over and above the historic process itself” — one of those acts being death. To talk of death was to recognize God and to recognize that we belong to a pattern of life that supersedes the structures of white supremacy that tell us we are merely a cog in the world, only valuable for our labor to owners, bosses, the ruling class. Death, and the poetry we make around it, becomes a way to acknowledge a world other than our own.
And even after death, there was the promise of heaven, which, to enslaved and oppressed people, presents a contradiction. Thurman pointed to the spiritual “All God’s Chillun Got Wings” as a sly philosophical proof of this question: If heaven exists, do our oppressors get to go there? Even as they write the laws and stories and edit the Bibles that tell us that they do? It includes both the lyrics, “I got wings, you got wings, all God’s children got wings” and “everyone who talks about heaven ain’t going there.” The enslaved people who made this song accept the democratic promise of heaven — we’ve all got the wings to get there — while letting us know that those in power who perpetuate cruelty and sin might not.
Right now, there’s a lot of talk about the importance of the Black imagination. That our liberation has long rested on our ability to imagine a radically different reality than the one white people insist on. We have been engaged in this since we got here, when we had the audacity to envision a society that was not predicated on slave labor. Black people embodied this daring of imagination as we wrote and talked and sang against slavery, and as those of us who could made the leap into an unknowable future and stole away. We made that leap again, post-Emancipation, when we demanded an understanding of citizenship and worth not based on color or creed. And we have been making it ever since, in every freedom struggle, including the one that’s played out this past year, as some of us ask the world to imagine what justice would look like, what a community would look like, without a reliance on the carceral to keep “order.” We are champion imaginers, usually thinking of things ten, twenty, one hundred years beyond what our masters, captors, police and jailers ever could. When I listen to and read about the old spirituals now, I understand them to be maps of profound imagination.
I should say I know so much about them because when I was a child they were a part of my musical education. My sisters went to a Quaker school in Cambridge, Mass., that based its music classes on American spirituals, and so I learned “Over My Head” alongside “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.” One of the first albums I bought for myself was by Sweet Honey in the Rock, a Black women’s choral group who rearrange and perform traditional spirituals for contemporary audiences. These songs are not an earnest part of the larger pop culture discussion — now, when people talk about them, they often do so ironically. I am thinking of the famous Issa Rae tweet — “deep, heavy, negro spiritual sigh” — an acknowledgment that spirituals are a space for the weary, a theatrical comment on the kind of pain and foolishness that only American culture can produce. But spirituals are the backbone of every type of American popular music. Our most talented producers — the best example being Kanye West — regularly borrow from the melodic traditions of the art form.
My favorite spiritual, one that is little-known but is typical of the style, is “Will I Find a Resting Place?” The best recording of it I’ve heard is by Nina Simone — she sang it with a backup chorus at her first-ever performance at Carnegie Hall, in 1963. On the track, Simone starts by singing, in her inimitable voice, “I’m tired.” The choir chimes in to answer her. Together, they weave a song about the deep fatigue of the spirit, and the questions that haunt all of us when we are faced with the specter of sudden, premature death. Will my body rest? Will death release me from this exhaustion? Will I find an acknowledgment of this feeling of yearning, somewhere?
Kaitlyn Greenidge is the author of the novels “We Love You, Charlie Freeman” and “Libertie.”
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