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February 17, 2009

Black spirituals sacred to all

The Southern (IL):

Martin Luther King Jr. famously lamented that the church was the most segregated major institution in America, and after four decades our worship remains largely separate. Research indicates today, only about 5 percent of the nation's churches are racially integrated, defined as drawing at least 20 percent of membership from outside of the church's largest racial group.

But what has broken every racial barrier is black sacred music.

It's hard to imagine the repertoire of any church's choir without a spiritual or gospel song, regardless of the denomination or race and background of its members. It's hard to imagine the church at all without this uniquely American art form that bloomed out of the blood-soaked soil of the black experience.

Among the most significant cultural contributions of African-Americans is clearly their voice, suppressed but never silenced. Considered a national treasure, slave songs have been celebrated and studied internationally since at least the late 19th century when the Fisk University Jubilee Singers began touring around the world. Entertaining the kings and queens of Europe helped the struggling black college raise money, but it also changed the way the world heard the good news.

"You've got German scholars of music listening to black sacred music in the 1800s. This music has been worldwide for more than 130 years," says SIUC's Father Joseph Brown, a Jesuit priest who has done extensive research on African-American religious history and fine arts.

The professor and director of the university's Black American Studies Program describes music as the parchment on which African-Americans wrote their own history and formed their own worship experience.

"The music was the first thing we had, and sometimes all we had," Brown says. "It's still the best way we carry on our culture."

Even before the slaves arrived, before they shared a common faith or language, the spiritual was being conceived in the bowels of slave ships, Brown says. "Groaning in chains, they fell into a humming. They started putting a sound to the feeling."

Denied the opportunity to practice the religions they brought with them, slaves adopted Christianity while retaining and adapting aspects of native spiritualities. Because they were often prohibited from forming their own congregations, slaves organized secretly. Many spirituals simultaneously lift up Christian concepts while also hiding messages such as meeting instructions.

"Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus! Steal away, steal away home, I hain't got long to stay here."

At these meetings, worshippers developed the spiritual by mixing African performance styles with hymns from the European worship tradition. Without access to musical instruments, worshippers' own bodies provided the percussive rhythm with hand-clapping, foot-stomping and swaying. The songs are often performed in a call and response pattern, traced to the worship of West Africa, through which the community shared in the sorrows, hopes and joys expressed by the individual.

The resulting worship style is a powerful expression of emotion the faithful often identify as a channeling of the Holy Spirit.

"It really is the Holy Spirit coming through us," said Evelyn Koine of Carbondale's Bethel AME Church, deflecting praise for her congregation's three celebrated choirs. "There are three young ladies in our choir who probably should be recording, but the rest of us just sing to praise the Lord. We don't have great voices until we all sing as a group." Read more.

Posted by acapnews at February 17, 2009 12:00 AM

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