Black Spirituals: Eschatological Hope, Tension, and Freedom
I have been reading an excellent book by James H. Cone called, The Spirituals and the Blues, in preparation for my paper that I will be presenting at a conference at Baylor in November. Below is a “snip” that discusses some of the various historical, cultural and musical influences that come to shape jazz. (Though in this “snip” the connection between spirituals and jazz is not yet developed, as my point is to focus in this post on the historical and existential situation in which the spirituals were birthed). After reading Cone, I was gripped by the unjust and absolutely inhumane treatment of blacks by whites and found myself praying that God would have mercy on us for such evils.
Before discussing jazz as an established genre, we should attempt to trace some of the various tributaries that eventually form this one river that we call “jazz,” and how the Christian faith of African Americans cannot be extricated from the coming-into-being of this music. Interestingly, while the Africans of North America were being torn from their families and homeland, and stripped of their culture, their white oppressors were unable to silence their music—music that in many ways allowed the cultural richness of the African people to live on. As James Cone explains, though the origins of African slavery in North America is difficult to pinpoint, it was in Jamestown in 1619 that the first Africans were sold into slavery. By 1700, the majority of Africans in North America were made slaves for life. Passionately describing this horrifying and inhumane experience, Cone writes,
“Slavery meant being snatched from your homeland and sailing to an unknown land in a stinking ship. Slavery meant being regarded as property, like horses, cows, and household goods. For blacks the auction block was one potent symbol of their subhuman status. The block stood for “brokenness,” because on sale days no family ties were recognized. […] Slavery meant working fifteen to twenty hours a day and being beaten for showing fatigue. It meant being driven into the field three weeks after delivering a baby. It meant having the cost of replacing you calculated against the value of your labor during a peak season, so that your owner could decide whether to work you to death. It meant being whipped for crying over a fellow slave who had been killed while trying to escape” .
Numerous other monstrosities could be cited, including slave catechisms created by whites claiming the name of Christ in order to produce more docile slaves and to attempt to convince slaves that they were in fact created to be slaves. The passage above, however, suffices to help us to begin to see the unjust and compassionless treatment of African Americans. In spite of such oppression, the African spirit resisted a reduction to white sameness. As Cone explains,
“When white people enslaved Africans, their intention was to dehistoricize black existence, to foreclose the possibility of a future defined by the African heritage. White people demeaned black people’s sacred tales, ridiculing their myths and defiling the sacred rites. Their intention was to define humanity according to European definitions so that their brutality against Africans could be characterized as civilizing the savages. But white Europeans did not succeed; and black history is the record of their failure”.
This resistance took many forms from physical violence to seeking a new life in free territories to purposely disrupting work routines. Another area in which resistance manifested was in the what we might call the specifically religious sphere. Slave religion (Cone’s term), which continually asserted the dignity of blacks because they too are created in God’s image, not only affirmed freedom from bondage but also freedom in bondage. That is, though it is the case that Christian slaves did seek a final end to their sufferings in the world beyond, they also believed in and sang spirituals about a God who was actively involved in history now—in their history—“making right what whites had made wrong. Just as God delivered the Children of Israel from Egyptian slavery, drowning Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea, he will also deliver black people from American slavery.” As Cone observes, the spirituals are often inspired by biblical passages that emphasized God’s care for and active involvement in liberating oppressed people. In these spirituals we encounter a deep trust in God’s promise to deliver his people. Yet, the spirituals also allowed the slaves to cry out in the agony of their suffering, “How long, O Lord?” Here we have not only an eschatological hope on the basis of who God is and what he has done and is doing in history past and present, but we have an acknowledgment of the eschatological tension that we experience in the present life where injustice often prevails. When the day finally came and God liberated the slaves from their bonds, these African American believers experienced what Cone calls an “eschatological freedom […] affirming that even now God’s future is inconsistent with the realities of slavery.” Thus, for black slaves, freedom “was a historical reality that had transcendent implications.”
Given what we have said up to this point, we might summarize one of the central theological themes of black spirituals as the belief that God had not forsaken his people coupled with the conviction that he would one day deliver them from their unjust human oppressors.