There is a wide, wide wonder in it all,
That from degraded rest and service toil
The fiery spirit of the seer should call
These simple children of the sun and soil.
O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,
You—you alone, of all the long, long line
Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,
Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.
--James Weldon Johnson in his poem “O Black and Unknown Bards” from 1922
The creators of the Spirituals, the unknown black bards as James Weldon Johnson calls them in his poem “O Black and Unknown Bards,” might have been untaught and unknown and unnamed, but they are seers. They see the way life truly is. They are sages of the Spirit. Their songs, the Spirituals, are musical memorabilia created on the anvil of misery in the crucible of inhumane slavery.
I study and sing them and have learned that I need to sit at the bards’ feet because they offer a wellspring of wisdom quite distinct from so many other sources of knowledge at a university. I remember the dis-membered in order to re-member the truth about life. The Spirituals offer lessons for all of us, no matter where we come from. They reveal the human condition.
First, they teach us the lesson of the inevitability of human suffering. Suffering stalks us all like the paparazzi no matter who we are. Of course, the Spirituals were formed during brutalizing slavery, and yet every human being, no matter their circumstances, will suffer in some way. It’s unavoidable. Sudden heart attacks. Shocking accidents at work. Medical complications. War. Gun violence. Take your pick. You will suffer in some way or form. Live long enough and eventually you will sing, “Nobody knows the trouble I see” or “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child.”
Second, they teach us the lesson of the necessity of community. These songs remind us that we were never meant to do life alone. If you think about it, the very nature of the Spirituals reveals this: They are folk songs with no specific author or actual place of origin. There are no specifics about the composer or lyricist because they are the community’s songs. They reflect what Paul Gilroy calls the “ethics of antiphony.” In performance, this might be evident through what’s called “call and response” but more importantly it is an underlying ethic and belief that we belong together as human beings. As one African proverb goes, “I am because we are”; as a Spiritual says, “there’s room for many-a more.”
Third, the Spirituals teach us the lesson of the possibility of hope. No matter how dire a situation, all hope is not lost. Under harsh circumstances, even on auction blocks, the enslaved could lift a song, even as a nonviolent weapon of oppression. As long as you could sing, you were alive. As long as you could sing, it was a sign of hope. The enslaved might have had chains around their hands but the songs were free. In fact, as Pauli Murray writes, “hope is a song in a weary throat.” Just to sing reveals hope, even if that song is one of lament. Ancient prophets might have raised a question such as, “Is there no balm in Gilead?” But the unknown black seers made that question into a statement—“There is a balm in Gilead!” Despite the ups and downs of life, there was still hope. Even as they sang “nobody knows the trouble I see,” they could climax that song with “glory hallelujah!” Hope is often possible in painful predicaments.
There are so many more lessons from the Spirituals but these three about suffering, community, and hope should suffice to remind us that these songs from “unfamed” people should matter to us. They had no portfolios of privilege, but they should matter to us. They had no degrees behind their names, but they should matter to us. They should matter to us because they were human beings in our vast human community. These humans on the black borderlands can help us. As Johnson says to the anonymous singers of the Spirituals in “O Black and Unknown Bards”:
You touched in chord with music empyrean.
You sang far better than you knew; the songs
That for your listeners' hungry hearts sufficed…
I urge you to listen to these unknown bards because in hearing them, you are hearing the wisdom of the Holy. These marginalized can minister to us. These unlettered folk can be our professors today.
The Rev. Dr. Luke A. Powery is Dean of Duke University Chapel. His column runs on alternate Mondays.
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