Readers of Hope Sings, So Beautiful may recall the story I tell in Chapter 1 about my introduction to the Negro spirituals. It happened in the summer of 1988, when, at the age of 23, I moved from my hometown in central Kentucky to study music at a small Buddhist college called the Naropa Institute (now Naropa University) in Boulder, Colorado. One of my first courses was called “Building a Vocal Community,” taught by guest professor Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, long-time member of the acapella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock. For two weeks, Dr. Barnwell took her 50 or so students on an intense ride into the African American spirituals tradition.
Like Fire from Heaven
It is one thing to think and talk about race and race relations in society and in the church. It is quite another to accompany a great storyteller, artist, and musician as they plunge you headlong into the deep river of black suffering, resistance, joyfulness, and grace. It was in this class that I first met the black Jesus who lives deep down in the dangerous memories and slave songs of the African American church in America. I will never forget the power of Dr. Barnwell’s storytelling, her strength and gracious presence, and the haunting power of her voice, which stirred something ineffable in me.
Thomas Merton once observed that the Psalms hold a certain advantage over the New Testament because we sing them, which makes us vulnerable to the text in ways that reading or passively listening to the scriptures does not. In singing the Psalms, says Merton, “we lay ourselves open as targets, which fire from heaven can strike and consume.” The same is true, I discovered, with the Negro spirituals. Black or white, yellow or brown, rich or poor, sinner or saint, you cannot hide from the transforming power of the spirituals.
Moreover, when we sing the spirituals together with others, we lay ourselves open to one another in ways we might never before have risked. Is there any act of greater vulnerability than singing, shoulder to shoulder, with another person? When you sing “I’ll Fly Away” surrounded by 40 or 50 others, you begin to believe it, down in the marrow of your bones. I can honestly say it was only after being introduced to the spirituals as a young adult that the resurrection of the body was no longer for me an abstraction.
Songs That Move the Social Body
In one of the best treatments of the relationship between music and theology I’ve yet seen, Emory University theologian and musicologist Don Saliers demonstrates “how singing itself can be considered an engagement with the political order that calls the polis to its own best being and practices—that is, singing that aims at restoring the commonweal of social and civic life.” Surveying hymns and psalms from the biblical tradition to the Negro Spirituals to the Civil Rights Movement, Saliers traces the ways in which the act of singing in the face of oppression “becomes a political act of resistance to idols, and a prophetic call for the transformation of the order of things.”
This music comes out of struggle, pain, and courage in the face of enormous economic and social hardships. We might call music that sustained hope in difficult times a “survival art.” [These were songs] of protest and affirmation rooted in a religious and moral tradition born of Christian faith. [These are songs] that “move the soul” and hence the social body. This is the sound of political theology. . . . Not the words only, but the power of the melodies and the way the whole body of the community sang the words, sounded the deep religious passion of such a theology. [Music and Theology, 2007]
For people of faith, as Saliers explains so beautifully here, music itself “becomes a theologically relevant action” insofar as it galvanizes freedom and gives us courage to raise our voices against the false idols of our culture.
It was not for nothing that civil rights marchers sang “I Shall Not be Moved” as club-brandishing policemen bore down on them. Once again, when you hear 5 or 10 or 50 brothers and sisters singing those words alongside you, you begin to feel, you become, their meaning. Like a tree planted by the water / I shall not be moved. In singing we join our voices with God’s own pathos, God’s own dreams for the world, God’s cry for justice.
Feeling Our Way through the Darkness
In his 1903 classic The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois writes with great poignancy about the Negro spirituals as vehicles of almost impossible hopefulness and haunting grace in the midst of unbearable suffering. Though “neglected,” “half despised,” and “persistently misunderstood,” the spirituals remain “the greatest gift of the Negro people” to the nation, Du Bois professes. I agree. To listen to the “sorrow songs” is to behold “the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side of the seas.”
Since I was first taught the spirituals in my mid-20s, I have shared them with anybody who would listen, not least my students. Why? What is their timeless gift? Du Bois writes:
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?
Do the Sorrow Songs sing true? Is their hope justified? Nobody, I think, can finally answer such questions for another person. They can only be answered by way of experience, and each of us may answer differently over the course of a lifetime.
Of course there are no guarantees that embracing such a vision of life, a “faith in the ultimate justice of things,” will not make me look the fool. To envision a day when we will be judged not by the color of our skins but by the content of our character is to risk, at least on this side of death, bitter heartbreak and disappointment. On the cold surface of things, we are still a very long way from such a reality in America.
Yet if heaven, or what Dr. King called the Beloved Community, be only a distant “dream,” visible only, as Saint Paul says, “through a glass darkly,” then for my part I would rather live by such dreams than without them. For every now and then, dreams and visions of things unseen have a way of breaking into reality.
Life is too short, and the stakes far too high, to play in small, centripetal circles. We feel our way through the darkness by un-clenching our fists and reaching out to hold the hands of others. We sing our way from fear and hesitation to courage and fresh hope. We make the path forward together by walking it.
In a week strangely book-ended by the remembrance of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the coronation qua inauguration of a deeply unsettling new American president, I can almost hear the people say Amen.