Monday, March 9, 2009

The Importance of the “Negro Spiritual”

I’m not sure if many Christians nowadays understand the enormous heritage of the Negro Spiritual and the trials of that era for the African American people. It is quite possibly one of most telling and historically recent examples of Western oppression and of that peoples’ lamentative response in a fundamentally biblical aspect.

When I reflected recently over this important part of North America’s history I was astonished to notice the symmetry in the periods. There are even sixty year periods as shown below:

1865: the abolition of slavery
1925: the Black Renaissance
1985: the first Dr Martin Luther King’s Day. (First inaugurated as a Public Holiday in 1992.)

This is not unlike the sort of period that the Southern Kingdom of Judah was in exile for. We can see here how very long the process of real change has taken.

This period, and the notional Negro Spiritual hymn, captures what I think all rightly-dealt-with oppression does. It cries out to God for mercy in the midst of it, and it otherwise long-sufferingly endures it until it is delivered from it.

The Negro Spiritual, though often written and sung in direct allusion to the then-present pain the slave negroes would have felt, is unmistakably gospel-related. They often sang of the hope of “home” being something lovely, beautiful and splendorous--and nonetheless, peace-filled; referring to “home” particularly in the now, but also, I think, in the to come context as well.

It is an interesting aside that you can play almost any Negro Spiritual hymn with simply five black notes (the pentatonic scale) on the piano--on these are built the “power and pathos of the Negro Spiritual.” –Wintley Phipps. (Phipps also points out a great and praiseworthy irony; the most famous “white” hymn, Amazing Grace, is also founded on these “black” notes--love that fact.)

The emotion of both accepted and rejected sorrow is so biblical in the tradition of lament. Chants, cries, shouts and shrieks are all part and parcel of the Negro Spiritual that has a worthy heritage for all of us to remember.

This sense of quiet “black pride” (as Phipps refers to it) is a healthy thing, as we can all draw down to God in this way… “It’s in the quiet crucible of your personal, private sufferings... that your noblest dreams are born...and God’s greatest gifts are given... in compensation for what you’ve been through...” –Phipps before a live recording of It Is Well With My Soul on YouTube. (I have added emphasis in un-italics.)

It is an inspiring thing, and not at all shameful, to witness someone go through the valley of pain and despair, returning afterwards in praise having seen God’s presence in the midst of it. The African Americans have shown via this tradition of the Negro Spiritual and through their heritage how to suffer well, and allow God to compensate them and, in that, provide a majestic and victorious road to freedom for them as a people.

DISCLAIMER: The use of the terms “Negro” or “Negro Spiritual” is not intended at all to offend any people of African or African American genealogy, or anybody for that matter.

Copyright © 2009, S. J. Wickham. All Rights Reserved Worldwide.

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