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Meaning and Knowing
Many non-Africans came to the United States seeking freedom from European despotism, seeking a new life. African Americans did not voluntarily come to these shores as willing immigrants, bondservants, or as convicted criminals. From the seventeenth through the nineteenth century, African Americans were subjected to the moral and legal oxymoron of legalized slavery endorsed by church and state. Both institutions validated this human bondage. Prior to the 1960s, many African Americans were subject to institutional racism supported and approved of by the nation's rulers, customs, and laws. One response by the enslaved Africans of the North American diaspora and by modern African Americans was the cultural artifact historically known as "the Spirituals." Using the phonodisc Voices of the Civil RightsMovement: Black American Freedom Songs, 1960-1966 as my primary database, in this chapter I set out a working definition of the Spirituals and question the ways African Americans handle meaning, knowing, and understanding.
"The harmonies and intensities of naked voices ... all sounds, from the soaring gospel descants of the soprano soloists to the thunderous hand clapping of the congregation, were created by human flesh. The sounds harked back to the moods of the slavery." African-American Spirituals mirror Black people's cultural, religious, and political experience in the United States. They document human existence and usage of power in American society. These folk harmonies that originated spontaneously exude life itself, foster pride, and conserve traditions and memories of life in bondage. These songs uniquely combine rhythm, melody, text, and harmony in a powerful sense of the religious and of rhythm. The mystery, beauty, and wonder of these melodies sound forth both a cry that ponders heavenly blessings now and the ongoing riddle of slavery midst the themes of prophecy, penitence, praise, fellowship, faith, aspiration, and advice. Slaves "smuggled" their valuable cargo, the treasure of their God-centered musical heritage, aboard slave ships. The antebellum Spirituals were both a secret means of communication and a means to reaffirm the displaced African's status as imago Dei, as created in the image of God.
To be created imago Dei means all God's creations stand equal before God and have the possibility of being in active, loving relationships with God and with other human beings. Within the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, the Spirituals helped unify disparate groups to attack legalized racism via moral, nonviolent resistance, and organized protest. Thirty years before the language of multiculturalism surfaced, civil rights activists of all colors and creeds united, as they celebrated their mutual experiences of imago Dei, toward freedom and justice for all. That celebration largely included singing the Spirituals. These cultural chants enabled both generations to exorcize the collective racist evil in their North American "Egypt's land." This racist evil was a historical paradox: a country founded on the belief that all humans have inherent natural rights given them by their Creator, denied, by its practices and laws, these moral and legal rights to persons of color. This denial signifies and discloses the contradictions within American law, cultural mores, and practice. Historically, the signers of the Declaration of Independence posited that "all men are created equal," and it was understood that "men" referred to White (Anglo-Saxon) male, non-Catholic land-owners. Equality was not for African Americans, women, non-Christians, non-Whites, or White men who did not own property. Despite these paradoxes and inequities of the sociopolitical environment, the Spirituals embodied the African Americans' sense of themselves, their sense of God, and their relationship with God. The Spirituals incubated and delivered the souls of Black folk from total despair in both the antebellum and 1960s eras: "The spirit of the songs could sweep up the crowd, and the young leaders realized that through song they could induce humble people to say and feel things that otherwise were beyond them.... People who had inched tentatively into the church take up the verse in full voice, setting themselves against feared authority." Faith overruled timidity and took fear hostage.
The faith, value, simplicity, and hope of Bible-inspired stories fuel the traditional Spirituals. These inspired tunes speak of suffering and sorrow, but they also speak of joy, Christian hope, and freedom in the year of Jubilee. The civil rights protest songs include redacted Spirituals and 1960s freedom songs that focus on "Freedom Now!" These updated versions of traditional Spirituals had a heightened relevancy to the 1960s because they include names of contemporary people, places, events, and singing styles. Freedom songs include secular songs, traditional Black gospel or hymnody, and other protest movement songs. Spirituals, spontaneously created songs by slaves, are in the family of Black music but are a different genre from the gospels and the blues. The gospels, the youngest of these song forms, are composed rather than being spontaneously created or "found." The blues, composed chiefly after slavery, focus on secular matters and, like the gospels, are authored by an individual or group of individuals. Both gospels and blues are composed; the Spirituals developed spontaneously in a setting and were later arranged for solo or choral performance. These Movement songs, remembrances, survivals, and expressions of identity and community, are a key to deciphering the riddle of the African-American experience. The Spirituals, the "grandmother" of later freedom songs within the plantation environment, combined poetry and music to help those in bondage deal with all of their existence.
Often slaves made up new verses or blended several Spirituals to create a new Spiritual as they performed the ring shout. The shouters formed a circle and then went round and round in a slow march or processional, all facing one direction. With their hands in front and their palms together, the singers' bodies swayed at the hips, and they dipped as their knees bent; with each shuffle, each step, they advanced their bodies only slightly. Not all Spirituals used the shout, and even when they did, it took different forms: rocking, heel-toe movement, advance, and retreatall as part of worshipping God.
The variety of ring shouts mirrored the variety in the style and the particular collections of Spirituals throughout the South. The Spirituals from the Carolina low country calmed and encouraged boatmen rowing, broke the monotony of the repetitive physical activity of laboring in the fields and doing household tasks, and accompanied dancing. The Gullah Blacks of South Carolina, without European influence, sang the Spirituals with many variations and apocalyptic imagery as they spoke of their stresses, their anxieties, and their experiences, joys, and sorrows. In the Spirituals from Avery Island, Louisiana, there were eighty songs which did not appear elsewhere, and many of these songs had distinctive references to the weather, especially rainstorms. These Spirituals also celebrated themes common to other Spirituals: humor and biblical imagery, especially conversion or redemption, deliverance, freedom, life, and death. French Blacks of Louisiana sang cantiques, or Spirituals derived from songs taught to them by Catholic priests, songs which roughly correspond to the Spirituals sung by Protestants. In recent history, proponents of Black Judaism (which began in the South, moved to the North, and, in one instance, relocated to Israel) also sing the Spirituals. Members of the Black Hebrew Israelite Nation see the Spirituals as songs that are real for them, now. The Black Hebrews believe they now live the true meaning of Black religious music, and they contend that the Spirituals they sang while growing up in the South led them to Israel. They replace "Jesus" with words like "Our Lord" or "Rabbey" for their leader. For the Black Hebrews, music helps them maintain their group commitment and verifies the reality of a Black Jesus, a Black Moses, and a Black homeland in Israel.
The Spirituals, which represent history in motion and a call to justice, provide a wealth of information about the impact of oppression on the actual relationships between God and humanity within American society. Because they assume the freedom of God and human beings, Spirituals tell us how people gain knowledge and give meaning to life. Spirituals have seen Black folk through being stolen from Africa and through being labeled, both in the larger culture and sometimes internally to the community: African, Negro, Negra, Nigger, Black, African American, Pan-African, American. Spirituals communicate ethnic identitythe changing process of stories, meanings, ancestry, and traditions that shape and affect Blacks in the tensions of being African, American, and African American, of being and knowing. One phrase that older African Americans exclaim when discussing knowing, meaning, and understanding (epistemology) says it best: "A heap see and a few know," by sharing information.
Black folk share information through storytelling. For example, one does not say simply, "I went to the store." One sets the scene, describes what happened prior to going to the store, the nature of the traffic, what friends were at the store, the bargains or outrageous prices, the items purchased, and the general "feel" of the store. If an item needed for a meal or an upcoming event was the cause of the store visit, one also talks about the menu, about who's coming to dinner, and/or about the event itself, particularly if a lesson can be taught or some wisdom can be shared. Parents and other adult relatives also relay information through anecdotes, by signifying or playing word games, and in community assemblies like church meetings, social or protest groups, and extended family gatherings.
Family gatherings are times when adults often tell children how much they resemble or act like an older relative, living or dead. Through short proverbs or stories of their own childhood escapades, they often pass on the "common sense" needed to accept reality, keep hope, and survive in life and in an oppressive environment. Traditionally, these lessons are shared at home, church, and school. For example, when money is limited and only certain foods are prepared, a child might ask, "What's for dessert?" A grandmother might answer, "Air sauce and wind pudding," or "Dessert yourself from the table." When people make comparisons, one might hear the phrase "Pot can't call kettle Black, and pepper can't call okra long mouth." If a person, especially a child continues to misbehave or get into trouble, someone might say: "A hard head makes a soft behind." These sayings, passed from generation to generation through oral retelling, relay Black folk thought. In intimate and larger social settings, children are often taught information through storytelling and action. Children get to tell stories themselves by making presentations at school and church. They learn self-esteem and public etiquette, and gain community support and nurture as they recite and perform stories. The development of such oral history over time evolves into an entire system of thought.
Many older sayings rely on images of the home, of planting, or of family to express an idea. These were key spheres of activity and child rearing during slavery and before World War II. These sayings also highlight much of what Blacks value in life and emphasize what they envision in terms of what it means to be human: the desire for freedom, equality, self-respect, creativity, and hard work so they can provide something better for their children. Common sense and "book learning" are both prized, although when an "educated fool" comes along, one can sometimes detect a spirit of anti-intellectualism. Rooted in the extended family tradition of Africa, family remains central to what it means to be an African-American human.
The record numbers of African-American family reunions and genealogy searches inaugurated since the first television broadcasts of Alex Haley's Roots and Roots: The Second Generation celebrate the importance of family. These productions gave modern Blacks the hope that they could find out about their ancestors despite the fact that families transported from Africa were intentionally split up. Black children and infants were often taken from their parents and sold. Black marriages were forbidden and not recognized as having legal status, even in "free" jurisdictions. Thus, the African-American experience of learning and knowing had to factor in the impact of slavery and racism and the way Black individuals and communities have had to be creative and secretive to survive.
Adults passed on survival strategies while teaching a child about family heritage, skills that involved everything from cooking, cleaning, and sewing to house and appliance repairs. Adults also passed on advice about life changes, adulthood, acquiring a trade, and marriage and family, while overtly or subtly passing on the "dos and don'ts" of being around White people. All African-American children growing up in the South knew the "gospel according to Jim Crow" for coping with White folk.
Some parents went to great lengths to spare children some of the grief of racism, but they could not totally shield their children from this evil. For example, where possible, many Black folk purchased big Buicks and Oldsmobiles, even if their houses appeared to be shacks. This purchase was not a frivolous or silly act. A Black person traveling in the South prior to the Civil Rights Movement needed a car with a large gas tank so that he or she could get from home to the destination. There was never a guarantee that one could always find a gas station; and if one found a station, there was no guarantee that the gas attendant would pump the gas or allow a Black person to pump his or her own gas. If a Black family's car broke down and they were near a White-owned hotel, they could not get overnight accommodations. Lyndon Johnson's Black chauffeur had to sleep in the limousine during the 1960 presidential campaign. Until the passage of the 1964-65 civil rights bills, public accommodation and transportation could be and were legally denied a Black person. In 1994, four Black Secret Service agents accompanying the vice president were refused service at a Maryland Denny's restaurant. Many Black children never knew that their families always carried fried chicken, sandwiches, pie, and drinks (soda, Kool-Aid, etc.) in their car whenever they traveled long distances because White-owned restaurants and drive-ins on highways did not serve Black people. A little metal "chamber pot" usually was carried on car trips, because there was no place to take Black children to use restroom facilities unless one happened to stop in a town with accommodations owned by African Americans. Often, these facilities were not on main highways. If Black organizations had regional or national meetings prior to the 1960s, chambers of commerce, major hotels, and motels did not greet them with smiles, a welcome, or keys to the city. On these occasions, Black people in the communities opened up their homes and "let out" rooms for the duration of the conferences. Thus the spiritual "Plenty Good Room" celebrates making a way and making room for others to become part of the whole. While forces conspired to limit the "room" for those deemed "other," especially African Americans, they continued to survive by using tactics which included the etiquette of vision and space.
In the most racist communities, Black folk learned to never look a White person in the eye; to step off the sidewalk if a White person approached; to drink only from the "colored" water fountain; and always to enter White business establishments from the rear. The innocent disregard for these unwritten but real subtle social mores cost Emmett Till his life in Money, Mississippi. African-American athletes and other entertainers at particular arenas and hotels could not sleep or eat in the same places where they performed. Segregation did not, however, prohibit many Blacks from having their own businesses to cater to the African-American community. Segregationist behavior and attitudes also did not stop Whites from often patronizing Black-owned businesses, from slavery through the twentieth century, particularly given that during slavery and early Reconstruction most southern artisans were Black.
Excerpted from EXORCIZING EVIL by Cheryl A. Kirk-Duggan. Copyright © 1997 by Cheryl Kirk-Duggan. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.