From the moment of capture, through the treacherous middle passage, after the final sale and throughout life in North America, the experience of enslaved Africans who first arrived at Jamestown, Virginia, some 400 years ago, was characterized by loss, terror and abuse.
The Abolition of the Slave Trade Act of 1807 made it illegal to buy and sell people in British colonies, but in the independent United States slavery remained a prominent – and legal – practice until December 1865. From this tragic backdrop one of the most poignant American musical genres, the Negro spiritual, was birthed.
Sometimes called slave songs, jubilees and sorrow songs, spirituals were created out of, and spoke directly to, the black experience in America prior to the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, that declared all slaves free.
West African roots
Spirituals have been a part of my life from childhood. In small churches in Virginia and North Carolina, we sang the songs of our ancestors, drawing strength and hope. I went on to study, perform and teach the spiritual for over 40 years to people across the U.S. and in various parts of the world.
Despite attempts, white slave-owners could not strip Africans of their culture. Even with a new language, English, and without familiar instruments, the enslaved people turned the peculiarities of African musical expressions into the African American sound.
Rhythms were complex and marked by syncopation, an accent on the weak beat. Call-and-response, a technique rooted in sub-Saharan West African culture, was frequently employed in spirituals. Call-and-response is very much like a conversation – the leader makes a statement or asks a question and others answer or expound.
An example of this is the spiritual, Certainly Lord. The leader excitedly queries, “Have you got good religion?” and others jubilantly respond, “Certainly, Lord.” Using repetition and improvisation, the conversation continues to build until everyone exclaims, “certainly, certainly, certainly, Lord!”
In Africa, drums were used to communicate from village to village because they could be used to mimic the inflection of voices.
As early as 1739 in the British colonies, drums were prohibited by law and characterized as weapons in an attempt to prevent slaves from building community and inciting rebellion.
As a result, enslaved people “played” drum patterns on the body. Hands clapped, feet stomped, bodies swayed and mouths provided sophisticated rhythmic patterns. This can be observed in Hambone, an example of improvised body music.
Some spirituals were derived from African melodies. Others were “new,” freely composed songs with a melodic phrase borrowed from here and a rhythmic pattern from there – all combined to create an highly improvised form.
The spiritual was deeply rooted in the oral tradition and often created spontaneously, one person starting a tune and another joining until a new song was added to the community repertoire. The sophisticated result was beautifully described in 1862 by Philadelphia musicologist and piano teacher Lucy McKim Garrison.
“It is difficult to express the entire character of these negro ballads by mere musical notes and signs,” she said. “The odd turns made in the throat; the curious rhythmic effect produced by single voices chiming in at different irregular intervals, seem almost as impossible to place on score.”
Textually, the spiritual drew from the Hebrew-Christian Bible, particularly the Old Testament, with its stories of deliverance and liberation. Songs like “Go Down Moses” direct the awaited deliverer to “go down” to Southern plantations and “tell ole Pharaoh” – the masters – to “let my people go.”
Songs of survival
For the slaves, the spiritual proved to be an ingenious tool used to counter senseless brutality and the denial of personhood. In order to survive emotionally, resilience was critical. In the spirituals, slaves sang out their struggle, weariness, loneliness, sorrow, hope and determination for a new and better life.
Yet these are not songs of anger. They are songs of survival that voice an unwavering belief in their own humanity and attest to an abiding faith in the ultimate triumph of good over systemic evil.
Interspersed within these seemingly hopeless texts are phrases that reflect the heart’s hope: the words “true believer” amid the acknowledgment that “sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” for example; and “glory, hallelujah” interjected after the text, “nobody knows the trouble I see.”
People whose every movement was dictated audaciously declared, “I’ve got shoes. You’ve got shoes. All God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s heaven.” In the same song they denounced the hypocrisy of the slaveholders’ religion: “Everybody talkin’ ‘bout heaven ain’t going there.”
Spirituals weren’t simply religious music. In his seminal work, “Narrative Of The Life of Frederick Douglass An American Slave,” published in 1845, the abolitionist explains,
“they were tones loud, long, and deep; they breathed 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.”
The spiritual served as a mediator between the dissonance of oppression and the belief that there was “a bright side somewhere.”
Four hundred years after the birth of slavery, as the world still struggles with racial division, injustice and a sense of hopelessness, spirituals can teach how to build hope in the face of despair and challenge the status quo.
“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” Matthew 18:20, KJV
Every week, millions of people all over the world attend some form of church service — whether it be at a historic inner-city building, a sparkling suburban structure, or a secret underground location. For many Christians, Sunday morning marks a time of reflection and acknowledgment of Jesus Christ as Lord. It’s also a time to enjoy the fellowship and camaraderie of other believers. Among many African Americans in the inner city, “remembering the sabbath day” (Exodus 20:8) is a prerequisite to starting the week off correctly.
It’s true that many of us attend church out of tradition or a sense of obligation. However, anything worth practicing — and anything valued enough to perform repetitively — is worth understanding. Which leads me to a question that may seem unnecessary on the surface but that is fraught with meaning for the living of our faith: Why do we attend church?
For many, the question is superfluous — the Bible commands we go to church, so we do it. Hebrews 10:25 admonishes us to “not [forsake] the assembling of ourselves together,” meaning that we should often afford ourselves the opportunity to join with other Christian men and women. Some Christians agree with that notion and some do not; however, it is relatively easy to conclude that many of us attend church because it is a part of our family upbringing or because of what the church represents to our society and our communities.
Our Heritage of Faith
I believe the truth about our theology as churchgoers is deeply rooted in our upbringing. It is apart of our cultural matrix.
We attend church because our parents attended or because our families have been members of a particular church for years. It represents a place where we all come together in fellowship and worship. One could survey any given church and interview countless parishioners capable of testifying about the positive experiences afforded to their families because of their commitment to attending service.
Ultimately we can, throughout history, point to the church as a place that has allowed all of God’s children to be a family. Even during slavery, the church represented the one place where the slave family might be allowed to go together. Slaves attended the church of their masters, and as long as the family worked on the same plantation, they could generally be assured that Sundays represented a small space in time where they could be with their families and be encouraged through the singing of spirituals and the presentation of God’s Word, and particularly what it had to say about true freedom and justice.
Middle-Class Flight and Return
In the book Preaching to the African American Middle Class, pastor and homiletics professor Marvin McMickle writes: “What better way is there to view the ministry of churches in inner-city areas than as agents that both prolong life and help to avoid decay in communities where almost every other business and institution has abandoned the area?”
McMickle goes on to observe how in the wake of middle-class flight from cities, churches survive as some of the few institutions left in blighted communities, often next to barbershops, beauty salons, currency exchange centers, and liquor stores. “Almost everything that inner city residents need in order to have a meaningful life is located outside of their community,” he continues, “ranging from medical care to adequate shopping facilities to employment beyond minimum wage jobs at fast-food restaurants.”
But, for the most part, the church remains.
In cities like Chicago, Detroit, Baltimore, and St. Louis the African American church is often the only legacy institution that has not uprooted itself from the inner city. While the quality of life for many of the parishioners has increased — allowing them to relocate to suburban areas — the church has not relocated. I believe many African Americans continue to attend churches in our cities for that reason. The church has always been there as a part of the community, and it is viewed as an entity that will remain. It is a prototype of the nature of Christ in the community; its presence will remain steadfast and unmovable.
As we have changed and grown, so have our churches. The emergence of the African American middle class brought with it the emergence of the African American megachurch. Chicago, for instance, is home to several megachurches located in predominately African American urban neighborhoods. Congregations like Rev. James Meeks’ Salem Baptist Church of Chicago, which boasts some 15,000 members, sits in the heart of the Roseland community (largely African American and partially Latino). The Apostolic Church of God, pastored by Dr. Byron Brazier, and the Trinity United Church of Christ, pastored by Rev. Otis Moss III, are both situated on the Southside and are predominantly African American.
Many scholars committed to the study of church growth and trends would argue that the birth of the American megachurch came as the result of suburban sprawl, social disconnectedness, and a rejection of traditional Protestant denominations and church models. However, I would argue that in the African American community the expansion of the middle-class and its members’ ability to participate as valuable consumers in society (meaning that we could now shop at the megamalls) also gave Black people the resources to support and become a part of larger church ministries.
We continue to attend church because it has managed to adapt to a changing culture, becoming more contemporary in its worship and diverse in its membership to reflect the surrounding society. But we also attend church to be rescued emotionally and spiritually from that very same society.
Jesus Is the Answer
Any number of sociological arguments about the church’s role in society can be made. Certainly the economic incline of the parishioners and the rise of mega-entities have caused the church to change, and we can relate to the fluctuation. But because these arguments are easily debated, they do not carry as much weight as this argument: We attend church because of our love for Jesus Christ.
Countless scholars have harvested mounds of information regarding church membership, trends in church growth, and the theology of churchgoers, but none can easily refute the idea that many Christians simply love the Lord and desire to experience His Spirit in the presence of other faithful and desirous believers.
Church represents the one place in society where we can worship and praise God in our own way and with few inhibitions. While we might acknowledge the role of our families in our relationship with God, and might identify with the consistent and conversely changing roles of the church, it is beyond debate that Jesus is the number one reason that Christians continue to gather on Sunday morning (or Saturday night) to demonstrate our need for spiritual renewal and our commitment to God’s Word as the guidebook for our daily lives.