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The untold significance of African American spirituals

June 6, 2011 14 comments

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.

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