Part II: Black Spirituals and the Genealogy of Jazz

[Part I]
This resistance to a reduction of white sameness by enslaved blacks took many forms, ranging from physical violence to seeking a new life in free territories to purposely disrupting work routines.  Another area in which resistance manifested was in what we might call the specifically “religious” sphere.  “Slave religion” (Cone’s term), which 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 (Cone 1972, 28).  That is, though it is the case that Christian slaves did seek an ultimate, definitive end to their sufferings in the new, re-created world, they also believed in and sang spirituals about a God who was actively involved in history now-in their history (Cone 1972, 32).  As Cone observes, black spirituals were often inspired by biblical passages that emphasized God’s care for and participation in liberating the oppressed.  While they expressed a deep trust in God’s promise to deliver his people, the spirituals also allowed the slaves to cry out in their suffering, asking the same question encountered so often in the Psalms, “How long, O Lord?”  In this willful act of turning to God in prayer, we see not only the manifestation of an eschatological hope on the basis of who God is and what he has done and is doing in history, but we likewise have an acknowledgment of the eschatological tension experienced in the present life where injustice so frequently 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 grounded in the events of the historical present, affirming that even now God’s future is inconsistent with the realities of slavery” (Cone 1972, 42).  In short, for black slaves, freedom “was a historical reality that had transcendent implications” (Cone 1972, 42).  Thus, 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 present unjust human oppressors-a conviction that in no way promoted a passive strategy of non-resistance but encouraged them to speak against the injustices committed against them and to pursue the freedom and dignity that they deserved as human beings.

Not only did black spirituals play a significant role the genealogy of jazz, but the blues as well left its own particular imprint on the face of jazz.  Employing a slightly different analogy, one might say that black spirituals and the blues are in a sense the soul that to varying degrees continues to animate jazz.   In both of these musical styles, we encounter improvisatory elements, syncopated rhythms, call and response patterns, and the use of “blue notes,” that is, flattened third, fifth, and seventh scale tones.  These blue notes imitate musically a wide spectrum of human emotions yet are particularly apt at communicating deep, heartfelt sorrow.  Although, on the one hand, it is accurate to understand jazz as a fusion of European harmonic structures and practices with distinctively African elements such as syncopation, swing, and complex polyrhythmic layerings; nonetheless, on the other hand, jazz, having been in a very real sense birthed into being by black spirituals and nurtured by the blues, retains, reflects and continues to re-tell the Christian narrative of hope in the midst of suffering.   Such hope was regularly exhibited in the lives of jazz musicians like Duke Ellington and Charlie Christian, who struggled moment by moment against the hatred of racism.  While both these musicians surpassed many if not all of their white contemporaries in musical talent, they and other black musicians were denied opportunities to play in the major venues, overlooked by the media, and made to stand in the shadows of white performers. Yet, in spite of this unfair and dishonest treatment, jazz musicians such as Duke Ellington (a professing Christian), Charlie Christian and numerous others were able to transcend these injustices by means of their music.

Though admittedly I have provided a mere sketch of the genealogy of jazz, my chief purpose has been to highlight the role played by black spirituals, and hence Christianity, on the historical development of jazz.  Just as the spirituals served as a way not only to tell the black story, but also the black story as understood within the history of redemption, so too jazz retains significant aspects of the Christian narrative, as it continues to communicate the joys, sorrows and hope of both African Americans and all others who are open to being changed by the narrative and the music.

Works Cited

Cone, James H, 1972.  The Spirituals and the Blues: An Interpretation. New York: The Seabury Press.

Part I: Black Spirituals and the Genealogy of Jazz

Part of what I hope to accomplish with this albeit brief ad fontes journey is to raise our awareness of the function of black spirituals within the context of the early black Christian communities in America, and to highlight the distinctive ways in which the Christian faith of African Americans cannot be extricated from the coming-into-being of what many (including myself) consider as America’s most important musical contribution, jazz.  Black spirituals first and foremost have a story to tell-a story whose main characters were concrete individuals, who, on a day to day basis, were confronted with a society, which by and large refused to acknowledge their history and existence as human beings.  In the face of the de-humanized and deplorable treatment of slaves by the whites in power, black spirituals allowed slaves to affirm their dignity as human beings created in God’s image and provided a way for their otherwise legally silenced voices to be heard.

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.  Although the origins of African slavery in North America are 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 (Cone 1972, 20).   Despite the great physical and psychological suffering,[1] the African spirit resisted a reduction to white sameness.  Vividly describing some of the inhumane and compassionless treatment endured by slaves, Cone writes:

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 (Cone 1972, 20-1).

Numerous other monstrosities could be cited, including slave catechisms created by whites, who claimed the name of Christ, hoped to more docile slaves and to convince blacks that they were in fact created to be slaves.  As previously mentioned, one must not underestimate the deeply historical, concrete nature of black spirituals as vehicles to communicate not only the slaves’ experiences in a white-defined society, but also they served as a way to preserve their African cultural roots and identity.  Yet, here again, white hatred went beyond physical enslavement and extended its scope in an attempt 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” (Cone 1972, 23).  Manifestly, the whites in power had defined humanity according to their own European image in order to justify their cruel actions as “civilizing the savages.”  However, their perverse plans failed, and “black history is the record of their failure” (Cone 1972, 24).


[1] Cone provides several powerful examples of the suffering endured by people of African heritage.  “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” (Cone 1972, 20-1).