Black Spirituals as Poetry and Resistance

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Header painting: John Antrobus’s “A Plantation Burial” (1860).Credit…The Historic New Orleans Collection

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 SouthCarolina.”

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 wouldsay 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.

Lillian Richter’s “Spirituals” (circa 1935-43).Credit…Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Art and Artifacts Division, The New York Public Library

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 ofthe 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.”

Originally printed in The New York Times. Read the entire article here.

Kaitlyn Greenidge is a contributing opinion writer for The New York Times. Her debut novel, “We Love You, Charlie Freeman,” was one of the New York Times Critics’ Top Books of 2016. Her writing has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vogue, Elle, Buzzfeed, Transition Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, The Believer, American Short Fiction and other places. She is the recipient of several fellowships, including from the Whiting Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. She is also a contributing editor for Lenny Letter.


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