Sojourner Truth Memorial in Florence, Massachusetts. Lynne Graves, CC BY-ND
Each semester I greet the students who file into my preaching class at Howard University with a standard talk. The talk is not an overview of the basics – techniques of sermon preparation or sermon delivery, as one might expect. Outlining the basics is not particularly difficult.
The greatest challenge, in fact, is helping learners to stretch their theology: namely, how they perceive who God is and convey what God is like in their sermons. This becomes particularly important for African-American preachers, especially African-American women preachers, because most come from church contexts that overuse exclusively masculine language for God and humanity.
Yet, America’s Christian pulpits, especially African-American pulpits, remain male-dominated spaces. Still today, eyebrows raise, churches split, pews empty and recommendation letters get lost at a woman’s mention that God has called her to preach.
The deciding factor for women desiring to pastor and be accorded respect equal to their male counterparts generally whittles down to one question: Can she preach?
The fact is that African-American women have preached, formed congregations and confronted many racial injustices since the slavery era.
Here’s the history
The earliest black female preacher was a Methodist woman simply known as Elizabeth. She held her first prayer meeting in Baltimore in 1808 and preached for about 50 years before retiring to Philadelphia to live among the Quakers.
An unbroken legacy of African-American women preachers persisted even long after Elizabeth. Reverend Jarena Lee became the first African-American woman to preach at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. She had started even before the church was officially formed in the city of Philadelphia in 1816. But, she faced considerable opposition.
AME Bishop Richard Allen, who founded the AME Church, had initially refused Lee’s request to preach. It was only upon hearing her speak, presumably, from the floor, during a worship service, that he permitted her to give a sermon.
Lee reported that Bishop Allen, “rose up in the assembly, and related that [she] had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put [her] off; but that he now as much believed that [she] was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.
Lee was much like her Colonial-era contemporary, the famed women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Truth had escaped John Dumont’s slave plantation in 1828 and landed in New York City, where she became an itinerant preacher active in the abolition and woman’s suffrage movements.
Fighting the gender narratives
For centuries now, the Holy Bible has been used to suppress women’s voices. These early female black preachers reinterpreted the Bible to liberate women.
In a skillful historical interpretation of the scriptures, in her convention address, Truth used the Bible to liberate and set the record straight about women’s rights. She professed:
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
Like Truth, Jarena Lee spoke truth to power and paved the way for other mid- to late 19th-century black female preachers to achieve validation as pulpit leaders, although neither she nor Truth received official clerical appointments.
The first woman to achieve this validation was Julia A. J. Foote. In 1884, she became the first woman ordained a deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion AMEZ Church. Shortly after followed the ordinations of AME evangelist Harriet A. Baker, who in 1889 was perhaps the first black woman to receive a pastoral appointment. Mary J. Small became the first woman to achieve “elder ordination” status, which permitted her to preach, teach and administer the sacraments and Holy Communion.
Historian Bettye Collier-Thomas maintains that the goal for most black women seeking ordination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was simply a matter of gender inclusion, not necessarily pursuing the need to transform the patriarchal church.
An important voice was that of Rev. Florence Spearing Randolph. In her role as reformer, suffragist, evangelist and pastor, she daringly advanced the cause of freedom and justice within the churches she served and even beyond during the period of the Great Migration of 20th century.
In her sermons she brought criticism to the broken promises of American democracy, the deceptive ideology of black inferiority and other chronic injustices.
Randolph’s sermon “If I Were White,” preached on Race Relations Sunday, Feb. 1, 1941, reminded her listeners of their self-worth. It emphasized that America’s whites who claim to be defending democracy in wartime have an obligation to all American citizens.
Randolph spoke in concrete language. She argued that the refusal of whites to act justly toward blacks, domestically and abroad, embraced sin rather than Christ. That, she said, revealed a realistic picture of America’s race problem.
She also spoke about gender discrimination. Randolph’s carefully crafted sermon in 1909 “Antipathy to Women Preachers,” for example, highlights several heroic women in the Bible. From her interpretation of their scriptural legacy, she argued that gender discrimination in Christian pulpits illustrated a misreading of scripture.
Randolph used her position as preacher to effect social change. She was a member and organizer for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which led in the work to pass the 18th Amendment, which made prohibition of the production, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. Her affiliation with the WCTU earned her the title “militant herald of temperance and righteousness.”
Today, several respected African-American women preachers and teachers of preachers proudly stand on Lee’s, Small’s and Randolph’s shoulders raising their prophetic voices.
Ma Rainey was one of Paramount Records’ most popular artists. JP Jazz Archive/Redferns
In the 1920s and 1930s, record sales of black artists were very lucrative for the music industry. As a June 1926 article from Talking Machine World explained:
The Negro trade is…itself…an enormously profitable occupation for the retailer who knows his way about…. The segregation of the Negro population has enabled dealers to build up a trade catering to this race exclusively.
Yet record companies routinely took advantage of the more unschooled, vernacular performers – especially black ones, who were already denied access to broader markets. It was standard operating procedure back in the days of “race music” – the name given to recordings by black artists that were marketed to the black buying public.
“Some will rob you with a six-gun…and some with a fountain pen.” So said Woody Guthrie in his song “Pretty Boy Floyd.”
Bottom line: if record companies could get away with it, there was no bottom line. No negotiated contract to sign. No publishing. No royalties. Wham bam thank you man. Take a low-ball flat fee and hit the road. Anonymity was also implicit in the deal, so many black artists were forgotten, their only legacy the era’s brittle shellac disks that were able to withstand the wear of time.
One of the most prominent early race labels was Paramount Records, which, between 1917 and 1932, recorded a breathtaking cross-section of seminal African-American artists.
In 2013 I learned that Jack White of Third Man Records (in partnership with Dean Blackwood’s Revenant Records) would be putting together a compilation of Paramount’s historic recordings. The project would be a grand collaboration of two deluxe volumes that would contain a stunning 1,600 tracks.
I was part of a team of researchers and writers tasked with unearthing new information about the featured artists and their songs. For me, it was an opportunity to put a face on some of Paramount’s more enigmatic artists. Listening to track after track, a zeitgeist began to coalesce. As voices from the grooves accrued to tell a story of a collective black experience, I came to see these performances as cumulative cultural memory – each track a brushstroke in a painting of a long-forgotten landscape.
The Pullman quartets, I learned, were a franchise: multiple configurations of singers performing concurrently under the company banner. They put on concerts, either performing live on the radio, or on long haul train routes as a form of passenger entertainment. The men who made the records were billed as the “President’s Own” – the working Pullman porters considered the company’s premier lineup.
In the late 1920s, The Pullman Porters Quartette of Chicago recorded a number of sides for Paramount. One tune was “Jog-a-Long Boys,” where they sang of sad roosters and being turned down by widow Brown, the “fattest gal in town.” The chorus went:
Jog-a-long, boys, jog-a-long, boys,
Be careful when you smile,
Do the latest style,
But jog-a-long, jog-a-long boys.
Jog-a-long, boys, jog-a-long, boys,
Don’t fool with google eyes,
That would not be wise,
But jog-a-long, jog-a-long boys.
At first, it seemed as if it were no more than a silly ditty performed in upbeat counterpoint harmony. Then it hit me: they were making light of a horrific reality – specifically, that a black man who dared to smile or even look askance at a white woman was putting himself in grave danger.
Look your best, but don’t forget your place…and just jog along, boys.
Horace George of Horace George’s Jubilee Harmonizers was a showman and an opportunist, a versatile musician who performed in whatever style sold, whether it was novelty gospel, blues, comedy or jazz.
His gospel group cut one record for Paramount in 1924, but he first surfaced as early as 1906, advertised in the Indianapolis Freeman as “the great clarinetist, comedian, and vocalist.” A few years later, George found himself in Seattle as the “Famous Colored Comedian…who gives correct images,” and later as the “Man with the Clarinet” in a touring black vaudeville troupe, the Great Dixieland Spectacle Company.
In the late 1910s, a black newspaper – the Indianapolis Freeman – called Horace George “a novelty on any bill.” The novelty? He could play three clarinets at once!
Rev TT Rose
Beyond the rollicking piano-driven gospel sides he cut for Paramount in the late 1920s, nothing was known of Rev T T Rose. Rose’s “Goodbye Babylon” was the title track of Dust-to-Digital’s 2004 Grammy-nominated collection, Goodbye, Babylon. It was also inspiration for a rock ‘n’ roll tune by the Black Keys. And Rose’s recording of “If I Had My Way, I’d Tear This Building Down” – later performed by artists ranging from Rev. Gary Davis to the Grateful Dead – is one of the earliest known recorded versions of that song.
Rev Rose’s personal story was the most heartening of all. He lived in Springfield, Illinois, and I located his 90-plus-year-old daughter Dorothy, who described her father as a man on a mission to end racism and institutionalized segregation.
As a child, Rose had witnessed the aftermath of the infamous 1908 Springfield Race Riots, an event that precipitated the formation of the NAACP. In the late 1920s Rose moved from Chicago to Springfield, in order to minister the city’s black community.
In an oral history recording, Rev Rose described Springfield as “just really a type of Southern town” with an “overpowering resentment of the Negro…distrust and the fear that the Negro might someday become stronger.” When he returned to Springfield, he observed that the time that had elapsed since the race riots was “a very short span of time to erase all the scars and the prejudices and the hate that was engendered…in that very unfortunate affair.”
It was a hate, he continued, that “Kind of hung like a cloud from an atomic bomb over the whole neighborhood” causing the black citizens of Springfield to go “into themselves quite a bit.”
After his short recording career with Paramount in the late 1920s, Rev Rose went on to become a regional bishop in the Church of God in Christ. He recorded because he thought songs could both uplift and spread messages of hope and perseverance in the struggle for Civil Rights. When he sang “If I Had My Way,” it’s clear that the building he wanted to tear down was no less than the edifice of racism.
The 58th Grammy Awards were everything we expected filled with great music, interesting acceptance speeches (Taylor, we’re looking at you.), and phenomenal live performances. And in case you missed it, here’s a recap on which of your favorite gospel artists walked away with the highest honors during music’s biggest night of the year.
“Destined to Win [Live],” Karen Clark Sheard
“Living It,” Dorinda Clark-Cole
“One Place Live,” Tasha Cobbs
“Covered: Alive in Asia [Live] (Deluxe),” Israel & Newbreed- WINNER
“Life Music: Stage Two,” Jonathan McReynolds
“Worth [Live],” Anthony Brown and Group Therapy
“Wanna Be Happy?,” Kirk Franklin- WINNER
“Intentional,” Travis Greene
“How Awesome Is Our God [Live],” Israel and Newbreed featuring Yolanda Adams; Neville Diedericks, Israel Houghton and Meleasa Houghton, songwriters
“Worth Fighting For [Live],” Brian Courtney Wilson; Aaron Lindsey and Brian Courtney Wilson, songwriters
Contemporary Christian Music Album
“Whatever the Road,” Jason Crabb
“How Can It Be,” Lauren Daigle
“Saints and Sinners,” Matt Maher
“This Is Not a Test,” Tobymac- WINNER
“Love Ran Red,” Chris Tomlin
Contemporary Christian Music Performance/Song
“Holy Spirit,” Francesca Battistelli- WINNER
“Lift Your Head Weary Sinner (Chains),” Crowder; Ed Cash, David Crowder and Seth Philpott, songwriters
“Because He Lives (Amen),” Matt Maher
“Soul on Fire,” Third Day featuring All Sons & Daughters; Tai Anderson, Brenton Brown, David Carr, Mark Lee, Matt Maher and Mac Powell, songwriters
“Feel It,” Tobymac featuring Mr. Talkbox; Cary Barlowe, David Arthur Garcia and Toby McKeehan, songwriters
Roots Gospel Album
“Still Rockin’ My Soul,” the Fairfield Four- WINNER
“Pray Now,” Karen Peck and New River
“Directions Home (Songs We Love, Songs You Know),” Point of Grace
Late last month, The Misfit Tour, featuring Christian Hip-Hop′s biggest artists stopped in
Chicago. We caught up with heavyweights like The Ambassador, Da′ T.R.U.T.H., Mali Music and more, backstage for exclusive interviews. The term “misfit” isn′t just for
show. Several artists have raw stories of scandal that have been made quite public recently,
but they are back with a battle cry of redemption and they are recruiting soldiers left on the
field. Watch the video below!
Music video featuring Ambassador, Sean Simmonds, Da′ Truth, Mali Music and more below!
Gospel singer and songwriter Jessy Dixon died at home in Chicago Monday, September 26, the Associated Press (AP) reported. The 73-year-old succumbed to an undisclosed illness, his sister Miriam Dixon told AP.
Dixon wrote songs for Cher, Diana Ross, Natalie Cole, and Amy Grant, but was best known for popularizing gospel outside the United States, AP reported, and for his collaborations with Paul Simon, according to an article in the Chicago Sun Times.
“He was a man of God, he loved to praise the Lord,” Miriam Dixon told the Chicago Tribune. “He had many opportunities to sing other music, but he loved gospel.”
“Dixon was born in San Antonio, Texas, and began singing there. In Chicago, he connected with gospel great James Cleveland and over the years performed with a number of gospel groups,” the Tribune reported.
An obituary on Dixon’s website says that he authored more than 200 songs, including the gospel classics “I Love To Praise His Name” and “He’s The Best Thing … To Happen to Me,” but was perhaps most known for his 1993 hit “I Am Redeemed” a song that “impacted audiences worldwide, and held a top-ten position on the gospel charts for over five years.”
Dixon had been “a cherished fixture on the Bill Gaither Gospel Hour television series and concert tours” for the past 16 years,” the obituary said. He also received numerous Dove and Grammy award nominations, earned five gold records, and was a 2008 Christian Music Hall of Fame inductee.
“Jessy Dixon was a great influence on me personally,” Grammy-winning gospel recording artist Donald Lawrence told the Sun Times. “He was a great representative of the city and defined the sound of Chicago gospel and introduced that sound to audiences all over the world. Jessy was the ultimate sophisticated gospel singer-songwriter.”
He is survived by a brother and sister. His website says a “Homegoing Celebration” will be held Monday October 10, 2011 at 6:00 p.m. at the Family Christian Center in Munster, Indiana.