In the summer of 1988 at the tender age of 23, I packed up my belongings and left my hometown of Lexington, 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 a tour de force called “Building a Vocal Community,” taught by guest professor Dr. Ysaye Barnwell, long-time member of the all-female African American acapella singing group Sweet Honey in the Rock. For two weeks Dr. Barnwell took her fifty or so students on an intense and wondrous ride into the terrible beauty of the African American spirituals tradition.
It is one thing to think and talk about race and race relations across the color line in the academy, society, and church. It is quite another to accompany a great storyteller, artist, and musician as she plunges you headlong into the deep river of black suffering, resistance, and grace. It was in this class, and indeed in Dr. Barnwell herself, that I first encountered the living God whose face happens to be black. It was here that I first contemplated the black Jesus, who still lives (and dies) deep down in the dangerous memories and slave songs of the African American community. 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. I can still feel the thrill of our final evening concert, in which we led the whole community in storytelling, song, and celebration of the living tradition we had begun to learn together.
Thomas Merton, the famous American Catholic monk and spiritual writer, once observed that the Psalms hold a certain advantage over the New Testament because we sing them. In singing the Psalms, says Merton, “we lay ourselves open as targets, which fire from heaven can strike and consume.”Such is the case, I quickly discovered, with the spirituals. Black or white, yellow or brown, rich or poor, sinner or saint, you cannot hide from the beauty and haunting power of the spirituals. Moreover, by singing them with others and not just studying them alone in quiet libraries, we lay ourselves open to one another in ways we might never before have risked. Is there any act of greater vulnerability, and potential intimacy, than singing, full-bodied and shoulder to shoulder, with another person? In laying ourselves open we can truly be and become “a vocal community.”
But what claim, if any, can a white man have on the spirituals? None at all, save when someone from the black community graciously invites me, the stranger and oppressor at their gate, into the song circle. In truth, when I sing the spirituals, especially when I am encircled by five or ten or fifty others, I make no claim on them whatsoever, intellectually, spiritually, historically, or otherwise. It is the spirituals that claim me, or better, we. Paradoxically, I discover myself by losing myself in the song circle, by giving myself over to the memory and experience of the black community. And it is this particular community, represented by four hundred years of suffering, fidelity, and grace, which claims me.
Merton goes on to suggest that the peculiar ability of the psalms to ignite a fire in the listener can only be accounted for “by the fact that we, in the Spirit, recognize the Spirit singing in ourselves.”Their impact, in other words, is theological and not just psychological. No less is true of the spirituals. To sing the spirituals is to be drawn into the very life and pathos of God, poured out and enfleshed in the human community. In our singing and physically embodying them, the spirituals are not merely signs pointing to historical events from which we remain far removed. They become sacraments, instruments of real presence and grace for a people still on pilgrimage in history. The false “I” of individualism and self-absorption—even my socially constructed identity of whiteness—gives way to make room for a new (and eternal) creation, the “we” of our shared life in one another and in God. If only for the duration of a song, the spirituals reveal “not merely what we ought to be but the unbelievable thing that we already are.” No less than the psalms, they make us to believe that “we are at the same time in the desert and in the Promised Land.”
[This post is an excerpt from Chapter 1: Entry Points]