070: The Power, Meaning, and Relevance Today of the Spirituals

At this time of energetic protesting against police brutality and renewed pushes toward justice, fairness, and the reform of systems and mindsets that work against black Americans, it is important for those of us who are working toward these goals understand as much as we can about the black community, including the history and lives of the individuals who were subjected to slavery and its many horrors. One window into this world is the collection of and scholarship about the negro spirituals, the songs and chants, many including dance, that arose during the chattel slave experience in America. For some, including many black people, the spirituals are an embarrassment, evidence of exhausted, down-trodden people hoping for a release from this world into the reward of heaven. Those who feel this way do not understand the spirituals!

In this episode, Arthur C. Jones, a black scholar, organizer, performer, and expert on the spirituals, joins Latter-day Faith host Dan Wotherspoon to introduce key elements of these songs, including the influences on their formation, the various roles they played in the lives of the slaves, including subversive messages, signals about secret gatherings and the “underground railroad” some contain, and much more. At various times during the conversation, Art sings lines or verses of spirituals and unpacks meanings that we would very likely miss if we were not ourselves enslaved during these times. What emerges from this musical tradition are messages of freedom, community, comfort, mourning, solidarity, faith, and empowerment–all of these elements that are essential in today’s movements toward truly equal rights and treatment for all.

Listen in as Art shares his own personal and professional journey that led him to an interest in and his calling to teach about the spirituals. His journey, though specific to him, resonates with anyone who is or has been on a search to discern what it is that God/Spirit/Mystery/Universe is calling them to do in service of the greater good. You don’t want to miss this episode!

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Links:

Arthur C. Jones, Wade in the Water: The Wisdom of the Spirituals, Third Edition (Leave a Little Room Publishing, 2005).

The Spirituals Project website, https://liberalarts.du.edu/lamont/spirituals-project

Winston-Salem State University choir, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, 2017.

Lord, Selma, Lord, Wikipedia page. Not currently streaming, but available via DVD/BlueRay/VHS.

Dwight N. Hopkins and George C. L. Cummings, Cut Loose Your Stammering Tongue: Black Theology in the Slave Narratives, Second Edition (Westminster John Knox Press, 2003). Originally published in 1991.

Dwight N. Hopkins, Shoes that Fit Our Feet: Sources for a Constructive Black Theology (Orbis Books, 1993).

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