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The untold significance of African American spirituals

I was prompted to write this short reflection after reading two very rich and insightful posts written by Sonja and Katie, two of my friends over at Women In Theology: http://witheology.wordpress.com/2011/05/30/ethnic-hymns-in-white-churches/ and http://witheology.wordpress.com/2011/06/01/ethnic-hymns-in-white-churches-take-two/.  I recommend reading these, if you have a chance.

The question on the table was how to evaluate the singing of so-called “ethnic” music–and, particularly, the spiritual songs of the African-American tradition–in predominantly “white” churches.  On the one hand, both Sonja and Katie suggest that this practice is often well-intentioned (i.e., motivated by a desire to respect and cultivate diversity in the body of Christ).  On the other hand, however, both argue that, in various ways, this practice can also be problematic, precisely to the extent that it does not address (and may even  support) the regnant power dynamics which are constitutive of racism,  white privilege, and white supremacy.  The take-away points for me are these: (1) singing supposedly non-white songs in churches that are mostly white is to be recommended only when combined with a rigorous ecclesial struggle against racism and (2) in the absence of such a struggle, this performance of multi-cultural worship is likely to entrench what it superficially appears to resist. 

I agree with these points.  I would, however, like to take a step back and think about the songs themselves.  The crucial question to me seems to be whether we are supposed to understand them more fundamentally as ethnic music (i.e., music belonging to and expressing the core of a particular culture or people) or rather as prayerful music (i.e., as music which, even in its particularity, potentially discloses something about the meaning or the stakes of prayer as such). 

Of course, the spirituals are both.  However, it strikes me that, because they are always and everywhere classified as the former, they are seldom recognized fully as the latter.  Decisions are made about them largely on the basis of their ethnic status.  This is the case not only among those who would use this status as a justification for excluding them from “mainstream” worship, but also among those who want to include and celebrate them for the sake of diversity.  Even those (like Sonja and Katie) who powerfully deconstruct these first two possibilities discuss the spirituals as though the decisive factor has to do with ethnicity (or culture or race): that is, with the way particular groups of people have been organized in history.    

This is no doubt an important locus of conversation!  Don’t get me wrong.  But it doesn’t get to the heart of the spirituals, which, like the psalms, are deeply revelatory of the mystery of prayer as such–in its historicity, its physicality, its beauty, its hope, its sorrow, its urgency, its power.  James Cone’s Spirituals and the Blues brings out this essentially prayerful aspect of the spirituals, but I still think Cone prioritizes the ethnic or racial question in such a way that many readers are likely to overlook what they are actually saying.  It seems to me that those who first sang the spirituals were less interested in being black or in expressing their particular culture than they were in raising up their sufferings and their hopes to the almighty God.  I say this as someone who understands myself as black but also and more fundamentally as a human being who tries frequently (and sometimes unsucessfully) to pray.   

So let me propose that the first criterion for the use of the spirituals by anyone has to be a readiness for prayer. 

And yet, this is not the only important criterion.  Another criterion is certainly that racism must be resisted.  But I’m also inclined to assert that the power of racism takes root precisely in our society’s collective deafness to the more-than-ethnic significance of these songs.  It is as though, because people with darker skin first sung them, their meaning has to be defined thoroughly by the politics of skin color.  But this pervasive outlook implicitly takes something away from their ability to embody prayer in the fullest, most humanizing and most divinizing, sense.  Prayers which are worthy of the name will take place in a particular linguistic, social, bodily event of space and time, but they will also be able to mediate a posture of openness to God across the greatest geographical and temporal expanses.  They will be recognizable, translatable, always and everywhere pray-able.  Consider the psalms (again); consider Augustine’s Confessions (and let us not forget that this text was written by a north African); consider Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle; consider any great classic of prayer.  Consider the spirituals.  In order to resist racism, it is necessary to let the spirituals be received as an important part of a general canon of Christian witness and devotion.  The dignity of those who first sang these songs is denied if this tradition is restricted to the status of cultural property.

No doubt, it is important to remember that those who composed and carried on the tradition of these beautiful lamentations and hymns have been treated for centuries as though they were less than human, as though they were unloved by God, and as–at best–a uniquely gifted but marginal (“ethnic,” “diverse,” “racial”) people.  In many ways, this unjust treatment continues today.  The awareness of these facts gives the spirituals additional poignancy and political significance, which more often than not probably goes unnoticed by many who, encountering them only rarely in the midst of a Sunday liturgy, are never prompted to stop and think about them in their original and contemporary contexts.  The solution to this, however, would seem to be to let their presence and their importance resound more powerfully and more frequently in the church as a whole.  The solution cannot be to lock them in a file to be used only when a certain percentage of blacks are around.  Such an approach merely underscores the status quo.  It devalues the spirituals.  It even invites African Americans to interpret the songs in a misleading way, as though they were to be valued as cultural elements existing alongside the catholic tradition rather than as integral features of it. 

If what so-called white churches need is a greater awareness of historical and ongoing racism, let us work to increase this; but what better place to start than by unpacking the significance of the spirituals (perhaps in a homily now and then . . .), and by incorporating them more robustly into mainstream liturgies everywhere? 

Do many people often feel awkward when singing these songs?  Yes.  But get over it.  Let it go.  Try to enter into the experience.  Put yourself in someone else’s shoes.  Step out of your comfort zone for a few seconds.  Use it as a chance to cultivate a greater sense of solidarity, not only with African Americans, but also with all those who, even though they pray, have not been respected in their humanity and have not been welcomed as the children of God that they are.  This will probably not come easy for some; it will be challenging.  But I see it as an indispensable part of our vocation as Christians: to allow ourselves to be enriched by prayers coming from all parts of the body of Christ.

Who has a right to sing these songs?  Only those who attempt to pray genuinely with them, to contemplate the depths of prayer which they vocalize, and–on the heels of this experience–seek greater justice and love in our still racially and ethnically torn world.

  1. Katie
    June 6, 2011 at 8:38 pm

    Hey Andrew,
    I’m going to have to think about this more deeply for awhile before I respond, but I just wanted to say that my suggestion that white people leave their congregations and join black ones was largely rhetorical not an actual piece of practical advice. It was kind of a “gut check” type of thing: I don’t think that many white people would actually move into black neighborhoods and I wanted people to be confronted by the contrast between their willingness to sing “black” music and their unwillingness to live with black people.

    On a related point, I am not all opposed to the formation of intentionally black communities or various black nationalisms. So, yes, I would see the “whitening” of the black church as, at least in our current socio-political situation, to be a very bad and unfortunate thing indeed.

  2. Katie
    June 6, 2011 at 8:49 pm

    and, i love what you say about the problematic way in which the spirituals are often “valued as cultural elements existing alongside the catholic tradition rather than as integral features of it.”

    But it seems like the spirituals are devalued in this way precisely because black PEOPLE have been seen as similarly marginal to the catholic experience, especially in the US. I just fret over the disconnection of black music from actual black people…

    Maybe you don’t disagree with me on this point, but, in my opinion, anyways, it seems that almost anything we do on this issue will be distorted as long as our society is so deeply shaped by white supremacy.

    And, do you think that white people can actually sing the spirituals in the way you describe? I’m not sure. I think we are really “damned if we do, damned if we don’t” but maybe I’m wrong.

  3. Sonja
    June 6, 2011 at 8:50 pm

    I really like this post, Andrew. I was especially struck by these lines: “But I’m also inclined to assert that the power of racism takes root precisely in our society’s collective deafness to the more-than-ethnic significance of these songs. It is as though, because people with darker skin first sung them, their meaning has to be defined thoroughly by the politics of skin color. But this pervasive sense of things implicitly takes something away from their ability to embody prayer in the fullest, most humanizing and most divinizing, sense.

    I’ll admit, though, that I found myself getting a little nervous when I tried to imagine my hometown Methodist congregation valuing black spirituals not for their ethnic particularity but for their “ability to embody prayer in the fullest, most humanizing and most divinizing sense.” I worry that such an approach could (but not necessarily would) be just another way of ignoring privilege. I think this nervousness stems from the fact (in my experience) that non-white “artefacts” are *already* often valued precisely because they, as non-white things, are thought to automatically be more “spiritual,” more “connected to the divine,” more “soulful.” As half Asian, for instance, I see this all the time in the upperclass white fascination with “Buddhism,” “zen,” “yoga,” etc.–an attraction which occassionally even includes Asian people: the Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh. “The East” really gets what “being human” is all about. They understand “The True Self.”

    There’s a weird mixing of universalism and particularity that’s going on there, and I’m not sure what you’d call it. Given that the embodiment of the universal-in-the-particular is at the core of Christianity (at least I think it’s supposed to be), how do we approach situations in which the universal-in-the-particular actually *is* the form that orientalism often takes? (Does that make any sense?)

  4. Andrew
    June 6, 2011 at 8:51 pm


    Yeah, after thinking about it for a little, I decided to take that line out, just because I thought it was opening up another complicated conversation. I think I see what you were getting at.

  5. Katie
    June 6, 2011 at 9:01 pm

    and, i’m not critiquing here, just sort of thinking out loud…there seems to be something go on in this whole situation that I can’t quite articulate. We wouldn’t expect Korean or even US Latino Christians to sing the spirituals, would we? Or would we? Would we expect an African-American church community–whether Catholic, AME, or some other denomination–to sing Latin American hymns?

    I think our answer to these questions is really important–is this just about every culturally particular church community (and every church community will be culturally particular) singing the music of as many different cultural mediations of christianity as possible or is this more directly about healing the awkward and highly artificial rift between white christians and black christians? Or a little of both? Or neither?

  6. Andrew
    June 6, 2011 at 9:50 pm

    Katie and Sonja,

    I will try to respond to you both at once! Let’s see how this goes. Thanks so much, not only for your comments now, but also for your posts which got me thinking in the first place.

    First, I really like your point, Katie, about people (and not just music) being the issue. I agree with you that the condition of white supremacy endangers all efforts here. But I am not convinced that there are a priori limits to what white people can do (look at yourself!). To build on your point about people, I want to say that I think we’ve got to start relating to each other as people first. It sounds really naive and basic, I’m sure. But that’s honestly where I think any meaningful change is going to begin. Behind the spirituals, behind white supremacy too, there are vulnerable, sinful, desirous people, who are (whether they know it yet or not) capable of prayer and greater conversion. Can we pray together? Can we pray, sometimes, using each others’ words, rhythms, traditions? God, I hope so! In particular, I think that encouraging those in the U.S., in positions of privilege, to pray and think about the spirituals, could prepare the way for a more meaningful level of intimacy between racially divided communities, in which the needs of the underprivileged would begin to be addressed and racial divisions could begin to be healed. But the focus on people would also allow, I suppose, an openness to the complex conditions of destitute white persons, wealthy black persons, people of various kinds of mixture, etc. The message of the spirituals–like that of the scriptures–may strike people in different ways, and the options wouldn’t be limited to white and black. My hope is that treating the spirituals as somewhat canonical (and not merely as cultural) could facilitate the process of discerning the full implications of these songs.

    I think Katie’s call to have us remember people speaks to your point, too, Sonja–which is very interesting–about orientalism taking on the form of a universalized particular. This way of idealizing the other seems disrespectful to me precisely to the extent that it occurs in a superficial and essentialist way, lacking the thickness of historical, experiential, interpersonal truth. If someone wants to study deeply the teachings of the Dalai Lama, for instance, in order to gain a real intimacy with this tradition, I wouldn’t necessarily see this as orientalism in the negative sense. What makes the difference? It’s almost a simple phenomenological maxim: a respect for the things (the people, the traditions, the prayers) themselves and for the precise way in which they disclose the mysteries of humanity and divinity.

    And, finally, to return to your point, Katie, about what the utlimate goal is, whether the correction of racist structures here or the diversification of liturgy generally–my sense is that it’s both. I don’t think that diversity needs to be maximized for it’s own sake. But I think finding ways to pray with (or in solidarity with) other members of the body of Christ who are in your midst is very important. So, in a diverse society such as the U.S., I think there are theological reasons to seek out and elevate the prayers of many different communities, but also to treat them precisely and fundamentally as prayers (more than as cultural artefacts).

    These are at least my initial thoughts.

  7. Sonja
    June 6, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Thanks for such a long and thought-provoking response, Andrew! I hope I don’t sound like I’m just trying to be contrarian in my response.

    In theory, ideally, I totally agree with you that a genuine respect for people and their traditions would be sufficient to preclude the kind of orientalizing I think is at work in the examples I gave. But in practice, I feel less confident about how far an emphasis on “respect” will get us. (I’m speaking of the word/concept “respect,” not the phenomenon itself, which I take it is what you mean.) Half-speaking(?) personally, “respect” is something that privileged white people do really, really well. We are experts at “respecting,” “appreciating,” “valuing,” and “celebrating” “diversity,” as any church/business/college brochure will tell you. It seems to me that “respect” is already so part and parcel of the white American orientalizing discourse that I have trouble imagining it as doing anything other than furthering the mess we are already in. So part of me wants to say that, in *SOME* situations, the most productive “strategy,” rather than the permanent solution, actually would be to say something like, “No, you don’t get to sing these songs, because it’s not about fairness, and because for once you don’t get to make someone else’s music about you. Go learn what that means for a year or so.” That’s exaggerated and perhaps too harsh, but there is a real sense of “entitlement” that I think is operating in *some* congregations’ eagerness to adopt what they perceive as “ethnic” music.

    Again, I hope this doesn’t sound contrarian! Possibly, I am speaking from a context (my home church growing up) that is less universal than I realize.

  8. Katie
    June 7, 2011 at 11:28 am

    Thanks for your response.

    When I first read your most recent comment, the following image came to mind: I envisioned two different faith communities, one mostly white and the other mostly black, coming together in an intentional way one Sunday and singing spirituals. Would this be what you had in mind or would you also advocate the integration of spirituals into the US catholic canon more generally?

    Also, (and I’m not sure about this myself, just curious about your opinion), would you want Catholics to sing the spirituals in particular or more contemporary black church music as well? In other words, are you speaking here about the spirituals or about culturally “black” music in general?

    • Andrew
      June 7, 2011 at 11:30 pm


      Your image of parishes coming together to sing the spirituals seems like a great idea, though I hadn’t thought of it. I want, at least in the U.S., to see the spirituals integrated more deeply into Catholic worship. In my experience, it’s not unusual to encounter one–but I think their significance needs to be brought out more, in catechesis, and in preaching, so people understand what they are doing when they sing and pray with these texts.

      To your second question, I’m speaking here about the spirituals in particular. The first criterion for including other culturally black music would have to be, for me, whether it, like the spirituals, embodies prayer in a very vital and shareable way. That being said, my sense is that even parishes in predominantly white areas could stand to be more intentionally intercultural in their worship. I think there’s, on the whole, far too much ethnic division between parishes in the U.S. As members of the one body of Christ, I think we’re called to a higher and more difficult practice of communion. But this is not to say that I think privileging certain traditions in certain contexts is a bad thing. Sometimes this is important. For instance, it has been important for many black churches, which function as vital refuges in a society and a church which remain implicated in various forms of racism.

  9. Andrew
    June 7, 2011 at 11:17 pm

    Thanks for these thoughts, Sonja. If I might paraphrase, your point seens to be that *genuine* respect for the other is hard to come by in a world that has already emptied this concept of almost all meaning by using it so widely without substance. So the question then becomes what effect this lack of genuineness should have on our strategy or plan for making things better. It’s a good and hard question. My gut, though, tells me that the only hope still lies in the direction of encouraging all to recognize and embrace as genuinely as possible the spirituals as thoroughly catholic and classical expressions of prayer.

    I’ve been thinking more, too, about your concerns regarding orientalism–which is a particular (though massive) case of what Edward Said calls more generally “cultural imperialism.” One thought I’ve had is that perhaps it makes a difference that, in the case of the spirituals, we’re talking about a tradition of prayer occurring within the body of Christ, the communion of saints, the catholicity (small “c”) of the church. Catholicity and cultural imperialism seem to share at least one trait: they justify the expropriation and blending of cultural elements around some kind of center. In the case of catholicity, however, the center is specified as a form of Christological, spiritual, ecclesial communion. For empire, the center may be something different (but, then again, it may not). In any case, my point is that, to the extent that catholicity is something which Christians accept, this seems to warrant at some basic level the idea of sharing in the traditions of holiness coming from many cultures (something that’s always already happening). The problem I was trying to diagnose is that the spirituals are treated as excceptional in this dynamic, as though some extra justification is needed for them since they are “ethnic,” whereas actually they should be shared and sharable because they are authentic and compelling embodiments of Christian prayer.

    But what about the other religious traditions which you mention (Buddhism, etc.)? Catholicity perhaps provides no sure justification here, but something analogous might be derived from the sense of our shared humanity, which appears to give us–I mean everyone–some sort of license to explore the possibilities of human existence opened up by another. A serious, *genuine* respect for the other, though often lacking, is no doubt an important constraint here. But I think there’s, at some level, a kind of openness to each other which we cannot undo or regulate too strongly.

    The problem with cultural imperialism, orientalism, racism, etc. seems to me more related to power differeces occuring in cultural exchange than in this exchange per se. The fact that power is involved here, of course, complicates everything. So–I don’t think anything I’ve said resolves the issues. I suppose I’m trying to make sense of my resistance to a way of seeking to preserve cultural property from foreign use which seems, to me, to give too little weight to the fact and the promise of intercultural communion (within and beyond the church).

    I realize, though, that I have now opened up a much larger conversation which will probably have to continue some other time.

  10. Kaye Ashe
    June 13, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    Loved Andrew’s analysis — and the conversation it has provoked. I personally love the depth, the passion, the rhythm, the joy,the humanity, the authenticity of spirituals — all beautifully communicated in Kathleen Battle’s and Jessye Norman’s “Spirituals in Concert.” Introducing spirituals in, for instance, a Korean church might seem bizarre, but they have been an integral part of the American experience for centuries. I appreciate the cogency of Sonja and Katie’s analysis. I want to think more about it. Meanwhile, I must say the highlight at yesterday’s Mass (Pentecost Sunday) in a predominately white congregation, was, for me, the last hymn – a spiritual rendered superbly and with feeling by the choir.

  1. June 6, 2011 at 10:08 pm
  2. June 7, 2011 at 1:28 am
  3. June 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm

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