«1 Dry Bones Death as the Context of Preaching... it was full of bones... there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. ...»
Human slavery has been greatly romanticized by the illusion of distance, the mint julep, the long Southern twilight, and the lazy sweetness of blooming magnolias. But it must be intimately remembered that slavery was a dirty, sordid, inhuman business. When the slaves were taken from their homeland, the primary social unit was destroyed, and all immediate tribal and family ties were ruthlessly broken. This meant the severing of the link that gave the individual African a sense of persona. There is no more hapless victim than one who is cut off from family, from language, from one’s roots.71 The slave’s persona was under attack not only through severed relational ties but by the “all-out assault on the black body.” 72 Oppression seeks to destroy one’s humanity, yet these musical sermons were proclaimed by those whose humanity was under attack. A context of death could not mute this life-giving music, even a death perpetuated by fellow Christians who practiced Christianity in a cruel manner.
DRY BONES • 31 Despite the failings of the church to act Christian, the enslaved continued to sing and proclaim, “I’m a rollin’, I’m a rollin’, I’m a rollin’ through an unfriendly worl’...” The world was unfriendly but so was the church, yet blacks kept rolling along and pushing forward in life despite the vast experiences of death, the very many dry bones in their valley. Though they were snatched from Africa, they did not lose their song. They sang in a strange land, in exile, because their music was portable. In fact, the context of death, like Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, provided a distinct texture for these sermons. “Slavery... gave color to [their] music. Slavery was the starting point and Heaven was the goal of [their] life.” 73 As with these songs, black preaching begins in suffering, pain, and death. It is the starting point for the vital preaching of Christian hope. This is not to celebrate death and slavery but it is to acknowledge it as the social setting of the spirituals, musical sermons that have much to teach contemporary preachers. As in our day, there was then the “tragedy of great need.” 74 Human need is no respecter of persons as many face “little deaths” on a daily basis.
But what these spirituals also reveal is a profound way to respond to one’s situation of death.
Spirituals as a Response to Death
A Singing Soul The spirituals as musical sermons reveal that preaching is a critical response to a domain of death. Ezekiel, when in the domain of death, was called to “prophesy to the bones,” to say a word. He could have been asked to do a wide variety of things in response to pervasive death, yet God called Ezekiel to preach as a response to death. Words have power and melodious words perhaps even more. To sing a sermon in order to counter death was natural for those whose “soul is a song” and whose life “a life of song.” 75 Music was not just the soul of the civil rights movement in the United States, it was and is the soul of black folks. Du Bois presents this notion implicitly by using epigraphic musical refrains of the spirituals at the beginning of each chapter in The Soul of Black Folks.76 The heart of the soul of black folks is a song, the spiritual speciﬁcally.
The black soul sang through death and until death. They possessed a “gift of story and song” in an “ill-harmonized and unmelodious land.” 77 They brought sweet melodies to a land that attempted to kill their song because their soul was a singer. They endured great suffering but not 32 • DEM DRY BONES without a song, which is why James Cone has declared, “Black history is a spiritual!” 78 The spiritual was their soul and it represented what it meant to be human, even as they were dehumanized. These particular songs of the soul have become not solely black songs but are human songs that are a “multipurposed anthem of the human spirit.” 79 Those who were deemed subhuman were teachers of humanity through the spirituals as they sang in response to their harsh situation. As long as they sang, there was still hope.
The words of the poet Paul Dunbar ring true for the enslaved: “I sing my song and all is well.”80 All is well because the spirituals were not just songs of the soul; they were life itself.
Song as Life To sing was to live. The setting of death could not mute the life-giving spirituals. Singing was a vital response to death because by doing so the enslaved were countering death with life. The spirituals might have been considered “sorrow songs”81 by some, but they were still songs that meant life continued to pulse in their oppressed veins. Some scholars say, “Without songs to sing, life would be diminished.”82 For the slave, however, without a song, life would be destroyed by death because through the spiritual, a musical sermon, the enslaved “chants new life.”83 This is the heart of preaching—chanting new life in the midst of death. The “urge to sing” the spirituals was just as indispensable to living as breath ﬂowing through the body.84 “The balm in Gilead was the spiritual itself.”85 The actual phenomenon of singing was life giving and a means of survival.
Musical preaching via the spirituals was essential for survival in the valley of the dry bones of slavery. To imagine black religiosity without them is impossible because they are the soul of a people ﬁghting to survive.
These musical sermons enabled survival because they “cut a path through the wilderness of despair.”86 Melodies paved a path toward freedom. Bernice Johnson Reagon, civil-rights singer and activist, argues that the “Spirituals were songs created as leverage, as salve, as voice, as a bridge over troubles one could not endure without the ﬂight of song and singing.”87 Without these spiritual melodies from heaven, many African Americans would not have survived. If they wanted to live, they had to sing, they had to preach musically.
These songs provided strength to the singing preachers. Former slave Vinnie Brunson said that singing “wuz des de way [the slave] ‘spressed his feelin’s an hit made him relieved.”88 It helped them endure the hardships of DRY BONES • 33 life. But this is not surprising because “whenever human beings are caught in oppressive suffering, songs emerge.”89 Musical sermons give strength to the weak and weary, battered and bruised. They are not a laughing matter.
These songs are nothing short of a “miracle.”90 Many chose to sing and not sulk. This “is one of those psychic phenomena which show the inscrutable workings of the Creator.”91 Even today, signs of the Creator are present through songs in the domain of death. During the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, there was a lot of singing even while there was much crying, screaming, moaning, and groaning. Singing is not the expected response to catastrophe. In one case, Ena Zizi, a seventy-year-old woman, had been buried for a week in earthquake rubble that was at least three stories high from the ground. When she was pulled out of the rubble, she was seriously dehydrated and had a broken leg and a dislocated hip. But that did not stop her; rather, Ena began to sing. Her body was worn and her throat was weary but life was singing.92 Her song in the rubble, as with the spirituals, was “a complete and ﬁnal refusal to be stopped.” 93 That song was a sound of the “glad deﬁance”94 of life bubbling up. But she was not alone as others sang on the streets day and night. The songs that rose from the rubble of this catastrophe were deeply communal for the life of a people.
Singing in Community (Secretly) As blacks responded to the context of death with musical sermons historically, the soul singing of life had a collective heartbeat. An entire community responded to death head-on with musical courage. In terms of music making, it is rare for the African to play for another; rather, he or she plays or sings with someone else. “The great lesson of African music is human brotherhood.”95 It is a bond in which anyone can sing. The “unknown” quality of the spirituals suggests that they are “the spirit of the people struggling to be free.”96 What is voiced is the communal voice, a community hymn sing that ﬁghts for life, the life of a community. Riggins Earl writes, “The singing act itself symbolized the socially objectiﬁed consciousness of the oppressed.”97 These songs created a sense of community, a social body that coalesced for the cause of liberation. Singing reaffirmed a common bond and reduced social alienation and feelings of a social death. The children of Israel struggled to sing a song in a strange land, but African Americans had to sing because “their being depended upon a song.”98 Singing solidiﬁed the community even if they had to sing in secret.
34 • DEM DRY BONES Many of the musical sermons were preached in what is called the “invisible institution.” Eugene Genovese writes, “The slaves’ religious meetings would be held in secret when their masters forbade all such; or when their masters forbade all except Sunday meetings; or when rumors of rebellion or disaffection led even indulgent masters to forbid them so as to protect the people from trigger-happy patrollers; or when the slaves wanted to make sure that no white would hear them.”99 These secret sessions gave a sense of communal autonomy and strength. This gathering empowered the enslaved to endure and even resist their unjust oppression.
This “institution” and other independent places of worship developed by the old-time preachers are important to highlight because “except for these separate places of worship there never would have been any Spirituals.”100 This strong statement reveals that the spiritual implies a community, one that celebrates and laments in the face of death. This kind of community that performs a musical sermonic “collective exorcism”101 of the demonic powers of slavery is an obvious threat to those in power.
Singing as Resistance Fear of Insurrection. The presence of a singing, preaching, and worshiping community can be viewed as a threat to those in power. The spirituals sung in community spread fear among the oppressors, especially after numerous rebellions. Genovese notes, Although blacks preached with some ease during the eighteenth century, they were severely curbed during the nineteenth. Each insurrectionary scare from Gabriel’s to Vesey’s to Nat Turner’s led to a wave of repression. Especially after 1831, laws forbade free Negroes to preach to slaves or sought to register and control them or required whites to be present when any black man preached. But the preachers, free and slave, carried on.102 Those in power saw the gathered community as an impetus toward insurrection. Singing and preaching, especially in the secret “hush harbors,” were viewed as “a threat to the social order”103 and potential cover for insurrection plotting. To preach, sing, or pray, even at home, was hazardous to the slave. If found engaging in these activities, they could be beaten or ﬂogged or, worse, killed. There are numerous accounts of this lockdown on worship. One report declares, “My Bos didn’ ’low us to go to church, DRY BONES • 35 er to pray er sing. Iffen he ketched us prayin ’er singin’ he whupped us.”104 Despite the forces of death literally beating down on them, the slaves “carried on” with their practices many times. Faith and courage could not be whipped out of them. One slave said, “When I was a slave my master would sometimes whip me awful, specially when he knew I was praying.
He was determined to whip the Spirit out of me, but he could never do it, for de more he whip the more the Spirit make me content to be whipt.”105 The fear of whites was so overwhelming that they were even skeptical of slave funerals. Singing and preaching in any venue were a to threat the powers of death because “you cannot sing a song and not change your condition.”106 These practices were a form of resistance to death, both blatant and subtle.
Blatant Opposition. Much scholarship has given attention to the more subtle resistance of the spirituals through their double coded meanings, which I discuss below; however, there are open signs of resistance to deathly circumstances in many of the spirituals. In his narrative My Bondage and My Freedom, Frederick Douglass says this about the spirituals: “Every tone was a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains.”107 The spirituals were “fatal words of confrontation and conﬂict.”108 Those that claim docility was the entire story miss the explicit
resistance to slavery and white oppression. For instance, the following spiritual is forthright about its resistance with the repetition of “no more”:
No more auction block for me, No more, No more, No more auction block for me, many thousand gone. No more peck o’corn for me, No more, no more, No more peck o’corn for me, many thousand gone.
No more driver’s lash for me.... No more pint o’salt for me.... No more hundred lash for me.... No more mistress’ call for me...