The linear construct of time that governs our minds in the world of Western European thought feels profoundly limiting as I ponder so many aspects of Black History Month– as a woman of African and Metinnecock descent, as a product of my generation, and as a musician. Year round for much of my life, I have been aware of different “categories” of “blackness,” at times attempting to fit into whichever ones would make me feel accepted by my “own” people. There is so much legacy, so much entanglement, there’s no clear beginning, middle or end.
And so many of these categories of the identities we constructed while in this country are delineated by not only the neighborhoods in which we were raised and the values that came from those communities. Arguably among the most important of those cultural signifiers has been the music we make and the way we make it.
In a society where more and more of us have adopted this concept of music being an art which is performed by “professionals” for an appreciative “audience,” the way African Americans– and really all people when you get to their folk roots– make music is more of a shared experience. To sit still in a baptist church service when the preacher is shouting, the choir is singing, and the saints are testifying was akin to sitting at the dinner table and refusing to eat. I never did the club scene much, but I know enough to know that when you go, you’re there to dance. Most popular American dances from the postbellum period on came from African American communities. Music for us was not just a product to be sold, it was a marker of our identity and to whom we belonged. In many ways it still is.
Recently with the preparation of our cantata Crossing Over and now with the occasion of Black History Month, my attention has turned to pondering the essence of spirituals. What makes a spiritual a spiritual and not a hymn, aside from the obvious knowledge that they came from enslaved descendants of Africa? Is it the structures that reflect African traditions, only done with the voice instead of instruments? Is it the dialect, the inflections, the free flowing moans that are never sung the same? Is it the woe of toil, scorn and loss in a lonely world that only enslaved Africans knew at that time? What did these ancestors of ours leave us from this painfully beautiful knowledge that we still long to sing them today– especially during Black History Month?
Of course, we know that this is not the only time for such inquiry, nor are African Americans the only group of people historically marginalized. Still, as we’re getting closer to a collective acknowledgement that Black history is American history, February has taken on a different tone for folks– especially African American artists, leaders and speakers– where we are perhaps more ready now than before to venture outside the box of the standard narratives. Reminders of slavery, snapshots of the Civil Rights Movement, celebration of genius with a mix of spirituals, jazz and African drumming on repeat.
And with so little time– hardly a moon’s orbit– it’s challenging to both celebrate and contemplate centuries of struggle, growth, contribution and progress from the African descendants whose labor and perseverance continue to shape this country and the world. We’re also now, for the most part, in a freshly post-pandemic groove that comes also in the wake of all the outcries in response to repulsive injustice from which we at least temporarily had no choice but to witness. So with more officially re-opened doors of organizations and institutions of all kinds this winter, we are considerably more committed to demonstrating their dedication to inclusion and diversity.
Having been blessed, myself, with a flow of opportunities during this time– both to myself as a soloist and to HALO, Incorporated as a quartet and organization– this new tone of awareness and invitation to collective reflection felt energizing to me. Coming more fully into myself over the past 5 years or so and acquiring a clearer view of the world walking through it as the woman my parents, grandparents and innumerable ancestors yielded me to be– my appetite has been whet for the voices and knowledge of so many activists and ancestors that my parents and other family elders had imparted to me since childhood. My soul has been singing its own new songs, which I recognized as the essence of spirituals I couldn’t even tell you when I’d first heard. All I know is that it’s time to sing them.
In the literal sense of singing spirituals in my soul, Crossing Over has truly been a divine inspiration for which the provision to co-create it with such wonderful artists and musicians has been bestowed beyond a measure I would ever have asked. The original draft of the song order with their connecting concepts across the songs and the musical elements is still in my files somewhere and their meaning is etched in my heart. And yet it’s still a struggle for me to trace back to what compelled me to reach out to Jodi and Edmond to build it into something we could share. We didn’t even have a place or specific plan on where or when to perform it, it just needed to happen.
And after close to a span of a year of working on it together, by the time we did bring it to Catoctin Furnace– the historic plantation site where African descendants were enslaved as iron workers– so much baggage of fear related to performance and all the “enoughness” so many musicians including me have strived for had finally fallen off and really brought me to my knees. All there was left to do was “let go and let God,” whether you actually believe in that or at least in life requiring our surrender of our ideas to simply what is. What was in me felt like the same mix of despair and determination, struggle and hope that inspired those songs from the beginning. And this resulted in a reception of such deep enthusiasm, it shocked me.
Some have argued, including Zora Neale Hurston, that the “classical” performance tradition of spirituals are not authentic representations of that musical canon. Beautiful, yes. Authentic, no. And while I acknowledge that there is an element of truth to this in the sense that “performance” was never the purpose of these songs when they were created, the assumption that their being sung from the stage rather than cried from the fields or called in a church negates the authenticity of their meaning to the singer or the experience of them being shared by those who bear witness, whether or not they’re also singing, is in some cases misguided. From my own experience, the sharing of these pieces in any location can be as true as our ancestors’ when it comes from the heart and soul. This can’t be any more presumptuous of their experience than the comparative challenge to the authenticity of today’s musicians. If we were to have the opportunity to meet someone who lived through slavery and attempt to codify the “legitimate” spiritual with some academic checklist and argument, could you imagine the look on their face?
Last summer, I sat in the audience at a vineyard watching my friend and colleague Ashley Denay perform “Earth is Ghetto” with her guitarist. The pairing honestly couldn’t have been more delightful. And I thought to myself, wow. That’s today’s version of “Lord, How Come Me Here?” There’s something in all of us, I believe, that knows what we perceive on this plane is not the essence of our Home. And when darkness looms over my mind and heart and existence on this planet feels like nothing more than a painful joke that wasn’t meant to last as long as modern medicine has allowed, “Lord How Come Me Here” moans in me. Without nearly the weight of hopelessness enslaved people had to endure in terms of circumstance, that longing and sorrow still sometimes emerges. And the other spirituals they left for us to keep singing, and that follow our rendition in the program Crossing Over, have been like golden arrows to freedom. So say what you will about whatever else you have seen and felt about “performances” of spirituals. I know where my song comes from.
My woes, thanks to the good fight fought and being fought still, aren’t nearly so physically, mentally or emotionally burdensome as so many of those who sang these songs in their earliest form. They prayed that one day neither they nor their loved ones living and to come would have to endure such sorrow. But have I been ‘buked, scorned, talked about? Sure as we’re born. Do I really know their troubles and sorrows? Well, they said only Jesus could. And glory hallelujah whatever God there is certainly knows mine. I believe myself and all beings to be spiritual- of spirit. And that we are each of us one of an infinite canon of unending melodies the Creator has chosen to sing.