Songs of Lamentation and Longing: Hearing Black Spirituals

[I have watched in horror over the past couple weeks at the continued violence against the black community in the United States and in Canada. In the interest of amplifying black voices, over the next week I’ll be promoting black theology past and present, with as little commentary from me as possible. May we all hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church through these powerful voices of faith.]

‘Black’ theology primarily refers to the theology that has emerged from the experiences and life of African Americans. As such, it is the theology of an oppressed and marginalized people — whether that oppression has come in the form of slavery, segregation, lynch mobs, gerrymandering and voter suppression, or other structures that perpetuate poverty and instability within the black community. And I want to acknowledge that specificity before doing anything else. If there’s anything I have learned from the past five years of white folk “all-lives-matter-ing” the grief-filled cry “Black Lives Matter,” it’s that white culture is prone to rushing past messy and hard specifics to easier, abstracted generalizations — no matter how true those generalizations may be. And so, while I believe it is important to listen to what black theology has to say to the wider Church, we need to start by acknowledging that a) it speaks primarily from and to its own experience; b) it isn’t about us; and c) while we can learn and receive from it with humility and gratitude, we must not misappropriate it for our own ends.

This caveat and acknowledgement is particularly important for today’s post, which focuses on listening to the theology of the musical tradition we know as ‘black spirituals’, which are often sung in predominantly white churches today. And I’m not sure they are always treated with the respect they deserve.

Starting with the spirituals feels cliche, but it’s important, because these songs have in a sense functioned as a second set of Psalms for black Christians, not only defining and articulating black theology’s major themes, but also providing black Christians with a shared vocabulary and way of framing those ideas, hopes and dreams.

It is said that there is no weapon stronger than a story. And so, when white slave-holders evangelized the men and women in their captivity, they unwittingly gave them a powerful weapon against their dehumanization: a narrative of liberation from slavery and God’s siding with the oppressed. Put another way, instead of the limp and blasphemous message of submission to authority that slave-holders thought they were giving, slaves heard the Gospel, which is always good news for the oppressed and liberation for captives. And so, guided by the Scriptures, they sang songs filled with images and metaphors drawn from the founding Biblical motifs of the Exodus, the Promised Land, and return from Exile, and by the experience of Christ’s suffering and oppression,. See for example the themes of the Promised Land and divine deliverance in “Sweet Chariot” and “Deep River”:

I looked over Jordan, and what did I see
Coming for to carry me home?
A band of angels coming after me,
Coming for to carry me home.
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home!

Deep River, my home is over the Jordan:
Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.
O, don’t you want to go to that Gospel feast,
That Promised Land where all is peace?
Deep River, Lord, I want to cross over into campground.

The famed abolitionist writer and orator Frederick Douglass noted the multiple meanings of these songs. When they sang of freedom, were they talking about freedom in God’s Kingdom from sin? Freedom in the North from bondage? Freedom in the world to come from toil? The answer was yes: “A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of “O Canaan, sweet Canaan, / I am bound for the land of Canaan,” something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan” (My Bondage and My Freedom). Contemporary theologian Diana L. Hayes refers to this music as an expression of “a constant, enduring, burning faith in a God who loves, a God who liberates, a God who acts in history, in the here-and-now of everyday life, to bring about relief from pain, hunger, and oppression” (“Trouble Don’t Last Always,” in No Crystal Stair, 39).

And so the spirituals carried within them the hope for a better day, whether in this life or the next. Yet, hope for the future does not eliminate the suffering of the present. And so the spirituals do not shy away from the hard questions about the mercy and justice of God. As James Cone, whose theology will get a full post here later this week, put it:

“Black faith emerged out of black people’s wrestling with suffering, the struggle to make sense out of their senseless situation, as they related their own predicament to similar stories in the Bible. On the one hand, faith spoke to their suffering, making it bearable, while, on the other hand, suffering contradicted their faith, making it unbearable. That is the profound paradox inherent in black faith, the dialectic of doubt and trust in the search for meaning, as blacks ‘walk[ed] through the valley of the shadow of death” (Ps 23.4)” (The Cross and the Lynching Tree, 124f).

One way the spirituals explored this paradox was to identify the black experience with Jesus’ own suffering and oppression, as though the cross were a present reality for their community:

Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?
Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble tremble tremble.
Were you there when they crucified my Lord?

Speaking about the experience of singing these songs growing up in the Jim Crow South, Cone wrote: “During my childhood, I heard a lot about the cross… We sang about “Calvary,” and asked, “Were you there?”, “down at the cross,” “when they crucified my Lord.” “Oh! Sometimes it causes me to tremble, tremble, tremble.” The spirituals, gospel songs, and hymns, focused on how Jesus achieved salvation for the least through his solidarity with them even unto death” (21).

And yet, even this sometimes failed to capture the grief of the paradox of life for enslaved Christians. Sometimes, the Spirituals simply stated the grief, the suffering, and the joy side by side, in no uncertain terms without trying to reconcile them:

Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen,
Nobody knows my sorrow.
Nobody knows de trouble I’ve seen,
Glory Hallelujah!

Lamentation and celebration side by side, in song just as in life. And perhaps this is why the spirituals always seem to speak more through how they are sung than from their deceptively simple words — in a way reminiscent of how St Paul describes the Holy Spirit sighing deep within us when we don’t know what to pray. As Douglass described his own experience with this:

“I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meanings of those rude, and apparently incoherent songs.… They told a tale which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension; they were tones, loud, long and deep, breathing 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” (My Bondage and My Freedom).

And so, the spirituals testify to the enduring hope of the most oppressed of peoples in a Gospel of freedom in the midst a situation that should have been hopeless. These songs of lamentation and longing stand as a witness to the power of black imagination and resilience. Slaving culture, the greed for cheap labour, and white supremacy conspired to crush African slaves and their descendants. They were not crushed.

Hear what the Holy Spirit is saying to the Church.

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