«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. ...»
The enslaved wanted “no more” death from anyone. They wanted freedom so much that death was sometimes more preferable than life. One must remember that “Black resistance has roots stretching back to the slave ships, the auction blocks, and the plantation regime. It began when the ﬁrst black person decided that death would be preferable to slavery.”109 The enslaved sang about it, too. “Before I’d be a slave, I’d be buried in my grave an’ go home to my Lawd an’ be free.” Yearning for death was a form of resistance against the life they endured and they knew that “Everybody talkin’ ’bout heab’n ain’t goin’ dere.” 36 • DEM DRY BONES Subtle Opposition. However, their musical forms of opposition were not always blatant. It was subtle, too. The enslaved performed a “pantomime of survival—smiling when they wanted to weep, laughing when they boiled with anger, feigning ignorance when they brimmed with intelligence.”110 One of the masterful components of the spirituals is their double or coded meaning or what has been called a “mask,” a prominent characteristic in African music. According to Lovell, “the mask was for protection against whites; the secrecy was for binding the slaves together through messages of assurance.”111 The use of mask and symbol, double entendre, was a form of lyrical resistance to the context of death. It is a secret protest against pain, thus many spirituals should not be read literally.
Spirituals such as these were secret modes of communication that only the black community understood. They were musical indictments against their oppression. They signiﬁed resistance. Other spirituals like “Steal Away,” “There’s a Great Camp Meeting,” “Walk Together Children Don’t Get Weary,” and “Wade in the Water” were hidden ways of announcing events, like a local news report that is only understood by those who speak the same language. Douglass is explicit about the double meaning in the
A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ DRY BONES • 37 something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the north—and the north was our Canaan.
In the lips of some, it meant the expectation of a speedy summons to a world of spirits; but in the lips of our company, it simply meant a speedy pilgrimage toward a free state, and deliverance from all the evils and dangers of slavery.113 These songs were not mere melodies of heaven but tunes of earth.
Whether the language was the “kingdom,” “heaven,” “Canaan land,” the “promised land” or “over Jordan,” there could be a dual meaning in light of the “mask” ideal. Revisionist history argues that the notion of heaven in these musical sermons is “a principle of social criticism well camouﬂaged in the prominent Christian language of the day. Most important, this revised interpretation claims that the African slaves discerned the symbol heaven as an implicit criticism of everything in the society that maintained slavery and racial oppression.”114 “Heaven” and related terms were not an otherworldly haven but this-worldly linguistic modes of resistance to death. John Blassingame asserts, “As other-worldly as they often appear, the spirituals served as much more than opiates and escapist fantasies. They affirmed the slave’s personal autonomy and recognized the reality of his earthly suffering. While looking beyond the dismal present to a brighter future, the spiritual enabled blacks to transcend degradation and to ﬁnd the emotional security to endure pain.”115 These songs resisted dehumanization and demonization and grabbed ahold of hope and the future in the face of opposition.
The spirituals were a part of “an insistent cultural antiphony”116 to the way white oppressors operated in the world. The antiphonal response represented by the double coded spirituals continued the “tradition of indirection”117 among preachers. The lyrics were not the sole dimension of the mask because melodies masked what was really happening in the subtextual world of deﬁance and resistance. The subtle form of resistance was also present in the performance of the spiritual, particularly the use of the body.
Gags were placed on slave preachers as a means to silence118 but gags could not prevent the body from talking, rhythmically resisting oppression. Some say, “The chief vehicle for the performance of the Negro spiritual was the human voice,”119 yet singing is sound moving through one’s body. A cultural “somatic sensibility” converges with music especially.120 38 • DEM DRY BONES The historical performance of the spiritual involves the swaying of the body. Johnson describes it when he writes, In all authentic American Negro music the rhythms may be divided roughly into two classes—rhythms based on the swinging of head and body and rhythms based on the patting of hands and feet. Again speaking roughly, the rhythms of the Spirituals fall in the ﬁrst class.
... The ‘swing’ of the Spirituals is an altogether subtle and elusive thing. It is subtle and elusive because it is in perfect union with the religious ecstasy that manifests itself in the swaying bodies of a whole congregation, swaying as if responding to the baton of some extremely sensitive conductor. So it is very difficult, if not impossible, to sing these songs sitting or standing coldly still, and at the same time capture the spontaneous ‘swing’ which is of their very essence.121 The subtle “swing” was present in the clandestine gatherings even as people had to sing with a “hush” because of the restrictive laws against gathering. Melva Costen says that even the “‘silent songs’” [were] expressed in kinesthetic movements and rhythms...”122 The body sang as it moved, swaying even in sorrow. The ring shout is a classic example of the embodied nature of singing spirituals.123 The musical sermon is incomplete without some sort of body movement—dancing, swaying, rocking, tapping, clapping. The “swing” suggests another form of resistance to death. In slavery, the oppressors attempted to control the black body. But in slave religion, “the slaves would take their bodies back.”124 The sway or swing of the black bodies in the performance of the spirituals was resistance to “Black bodies swinging in the Southern breeze” on lynching trees.125 Their sway as they sang was a counterswing to the swaying of death in their environment. This bodily swing was a way of taking control of one’s space, voice, body, and life. They could swing in the face of death to resist it. They could affirm that God was present with them in their bodies. The swing of the spiritual was an affirmation of divine presence and human dignity to such an extent that bruised and beaten black bodies “became an icon of God.”126 These musical sermons revealed that they were somebody when others treated them like nobody. Their literal bodies swayed in the wind of the Spirit(ual) to counteract the bodies in the southern breeze. By doing so, they showed that they were a collective body rhythmically “swinging to the movement of life.”127 This spiritual hunger for life in the face of death is something DRY BONES • 39 to be remembered, especially for those ministering in a valley with very many dry bones.
Importance of Cultural Memory for Preaching There is a proverb that says, “Don’t forget the bridge that brought you over.” The musical bridge that is the spirituals brought black peoples over troubled waters in the past and present. To forget them is to forget how many preachers arrived where they are today by standing on the shoulders of the unknown black bards. Their melodies, biblical insight, contextual sensitivity, performance practices, and sheer will to live shape the nature of preaching today. To forget them is to lose the deep spiritual roots of preaching. Remembering the past sheds light on the present. The past possesses rich pedagogical wisdom. The hymn declares, “We’ve come this far by faith,” but we still have much further to go in our preaching because “every shut eye ain’t sleep, every good-bye ain’t gone.” The door of the past cannot be closed and in the case of the spirituals, it should not be because there is further development and growth needed in our preaching. We need to keep the history of the spirituals open for contemporary knowledge, but that history, as described above, is partly brutal and inhumane.
Some want to forget slavery because “Slavery is the site of black victimage and thus of tradition’s intended erasure.”128 Some are ashamed of singing the spirituals because of their connection to slavery. They are considered unsophisticated musical ditties that weaken African Americans.
Those who support erasure of past slavery from historical memory will also cry that slavery was not the totality of the black experience in the past, but that there was also dignity. This is true, but the dignity was held in the midst of slavery, death. “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.”129 To forget that wet path of tears would be a sign of disrespect to the ancestors, the “many thousand gone.” To remember is to honor them.
Furthermore, I would argue that to forget slavery is actually impossible because, just like Lazarus’s body, death “stinketh” (John 11:39, kjv), and the stench of death from slavery lingers in today’s atmosphere.
Death cannot be avoided and the spirituals demonstrate how death can be encountered courageously. This is tremendously empowering toward reimagining what preaching is because, as Toni Morrison reminds us, “the act of imagination is bound up with memory.”130 As one remembers, one reimagines, even re-members, the essence of preaching. This reimagining leads us to the place of death and contamination, the valley of dry bones.
40 • DEM DRY BONES If one does not sever ties with the human history of the spirituals, one will not only learn lessons of life, but gain homiletical wisdom that shapes a distinct perspective on the task of preaching. Remembering the spirituals provides numerous lessons for understanding preaching.
Remembering Human Tragedy The ﬁrst lesson from the spirituals that preachers can learn is that human tragedy, death, pain, and suffering are a part of human life, thus a critical component of the context for preaching. To remember the spirituals, one must remember that death and suffering are pervasive. No human being escapes “de troubles of the world.” Thurman declares that “suffering stalks [humanity], never losing the scent, and soon or late seizes upon him [or her] to wreak its devastation.”131 Black preaching expressions are historically rooted in death-wielding devastation unless someone suffers from cultural amnesia and forgets this. The history of pain is part of the power of African American preaching. This is not to celebrate death and pain but to acknowledge it as part of human reality. To remember the spirituals for thinking about preaching means that one remembers a deadly, bloody, and tear-ﬁlled past in human history. As noted, “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come treading a path through the blood of the slaughtered.” Tears, blood, and death, not health, wealth, and prosperity, have been the heart of the existential journey of black people in the world. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of faith,”132 says Raboteau, and for my homiletical purpose, the blood of the martyrs fertilizes the soil of our preaching. Black preachers stand in their blood to preach. Their blood cries out from the pulpit every time we stand to preach because they have paved the path of proclamation.
From the waters of the Middle Passage to the blood spilled in the “land of the free,” from slavery to the Jim Crow era to the current burdens of today, these martyrs teach us “that suffering must be lived through; it can’t be avoided by any of the spurious means of escape that people use to distract one another from real life. Life is bittersweet, joyful sadness.”133 This is what the “haunting echo”134 of the spirituals teaches preachers. Tragedy and death are aspects of the gospel. Preaching is supposed to be a truth-telling enterprise and have a “truth orientation”135 about it. If preaching does not acknowledge the truth of death and suffering in the world, it is a doxological lie that perpetuates homiletical dishonesty. But the honest truth is that, for many, life is bitter and sweet is sour. The historical path of human existence DRY BONES • 41 has been paved with the innocent blood of people, the blood of our ancestors. African diasporan cultural memory is moist with bitter blood.