Gospel Songs of Liberation

When the political world erupted after YouTube posted the fiery sermons of Jeremiah Wright,  the Obamas’ pastor in Chicago, America plunged into another “conversation about race.” That conversation has a rocky history with many fade-to-black conclusions leaving no genuine resolution. The depth of African-American poverty is a case in point. Conservatives lay the blame on personal responsibility; liberals on gutted federal antipoverty programs. As the Wright story hit the media, networks searched for preachers at large churches to comment on his searing remarks. The ministers I saw, while distancing themselves from his comments, refused to level full-bore denunciations of Wright. A minister on CNN suggested that Wright’s polemics were an overstatement of “the gospel of liberation theology,” which envisions Jesus as a figure of restorative justice.

Whatever impact Wright has on the Obama candidacy, black churches received more coverage – most of it favorable – than they’ve had in years. Yet in the nights I spent switching from CNN to Fox to MSNBC, there was nothing on the music.

A long musical lineage undergirds the gospel of black liberation. The songs are far subtler in stylistic attack than Wright’s pulpit thundering; coded references of lyrics advanced a memory and worldview of subverting legal injustice. Spirituals sung by slaves masked deeper meanings. “Steal away, steal away, to Jesus,” are famous lines that literally meant steal your body, yourself-as-property, escape to the promise of freedom as embodied in Jesus, the liberator.

In The Spirituals and the Blues, James H. Cone of Union Theological Seminary in New York City writes: “The prevalence of flight, theft, arson and other forms of resistance meant that the slave and master did not share the same ethical perspective. Owners thought that ‘good’ slaves were those who were obedient and diligent in the master’s interest while the ‘bad’ ones stole, malingered or ran away. Black people rejected these definitions of good and bad, though they did not reject law and morality.”

Another religious song, retrofitted into a 1960s uptempo weave of jazz-and-blues by Ramsey Lewis, “Wading in the Water,” had its origins in a song of slaves escaping in the water, fording over to the far bank of freedom.

In People Get Ready! A New History of Black Gospel Music, Robert Darden cites other such songs – “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” “Seeking for a City,” “Run to Jesus,” “Brother Moses Go to the Promised Land” – to buttress his speculation that “when escape attempts were brewing, old songs were given new, perhaps detailed, lyrics that outlined specific points of departure or times. The vast majority of these, if they were ever written down, were ‘systematically’ destroyed, along with all of the other records of the Underground Railroad. The risks of discovery were simply too great.”

In a memoir about the search for her father’s black Creole origins, One Drop, writer Bliss Broyard of Brooklyn spent long periods in New Orleans. Raised as a white girl, she spent time immersed in Tremé’s black culture, trying to understand her complex personal roots: “A few blocks from the house where my father was born, I chanted a song of the Mardi Gras Indians, Shallow water, oh mama, that Bev whispered was sung by Indian women washing clothes on the riverbank to let escaping slaves know where to cross; and I clapped and swayed with the rest of the crowd.”

Indian chants that vaunt hard-pitched battles during Carnival – “Meet de boys on de battlefront/De Wild Tchoupitoulas gonna stomp some romp” – are another side of the same coin, celebrating bravery; the outlaw as a kind of mythic figure of rebellion.
Messages of escape, liberation and a quest for justice flowed from church song into pulpit sermons that fed off the music with expansive reciprocity by the “singing preachers.” Several years ago, in a spellbinding eulogy for the murdered gospel singer Raymond Myles, Bishop Paul Morton of the Full Gospel Church – all but dancing out his angst – summoned meaning from Psalm 137, which finds the Israelites in captivity, yearning for harps that lie behind them, on the other side of the river. “We must take back our harps!” cried Morton, “and take back our song!”

Everyone got his message: the singer was dead, cut down in the prime of life on lawless streets; but the song, like the gospel promising life to a people, must go on.

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