Learning to listen to the radical hope embedded in the Spirituals we discover that long before theorists in Communications Studies drew the contours of the field of “performance studies”, the Old Folks (known hereafter as the “Old Folks”) had been hard at work, telling each other that the sacraments of salvation had much to do with acting out the reality they believed was not only possible but necessary for their continuance as human beings and their transcendence out of enslavement.
When we refresh our memory of the Kongo Cosmogram as it has been taught to us by (most notably) Robert Farris Thompson, we are humbled by the spiritual genius that gave them a strategy for becoming the ancestors of themselves – replacing the ancestors erased from the circle by the devastating disconnect of transatlantic enslavement.
The place on the circle where midnight is located is also the place where the “living dead” the ancestors reside. People always “knew where they stood”, where their cultural foundation could be found. Going into the burial ground, singing praise songs, presenting gifts of bread and wine, asking for guidance, protection and confirmation, the people taught their children what the elders and ancestors had taught them: No one is dead as long as you can sing their names and tell their stories.
And the dislocation of the slave trade erased that surety, that comfort, that coherence. The “bottom was taken away from them.” They no longer had ground to stand on. When it was their transition time, where would they go? Who would welcome them? Meaning had been forever corrupted. And who could they call upon in times of confusion? Upon whom could they rely to provide them the texts from which they could draw the lessons needed for righteous and generous living? Losing the place of the ancestors was as traumatic as any other aspect of racial enslavement.
So they became the ancestors they and their children needed. When they chose to survive, “strangers in a strange land,” they placed themselves upon the altar of sacrifice – the alien earth that could not whisper to them – and offered themselves to be the past from which wisdom could be harvested. Once they learned the names of the new God and the new heroes of that God’s faith, they appropriated their identities, their communal functions and their power to make things happen (the “ashė”, as RFT describes it). It should be no surprise, therefore, that Moses and Elijah and Ezekiel and Joshua and Daniel and David and Mary and Martha and John; and Sweet Little Jesus Boy and his mother, Mary; and Jacob’s angels are all called into service by these wonder-workers.
What those Bible Folks did, what they “stood for” is something “we need in our lives, right here and now,” the Old Folks decided. So they tried to be what they read and heard about and made songs to make that appropriation as thorough as possible. And then they performed a grand discernment of spirits. If they saw someone with a certain gift useful to the community, they anointed that person with the name of power. No one better exemplifies this dynamic than Harriet Tubman, who we are often told was called “the Moses of her people.” It might be time to clarify that title: was called “Moses” by her people. Any mother who survived childbirth could have been soothed by “Mary had a little baby, born in Bethlehem/ and just as soon as that baby cried/ She rocked him in a weary land…” Or “Go Mary, Ring them bells…I heard from Heaven today.” Or, most importantly, “We are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder.”
But at the season of remembering the anniversary of the U. S. Supreme Court decision, in 1954, of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas, it is the David of the Spirituals who hums in our heads. [Paul Robeson: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-CC5WM1Fnuo&index=13&list=PLbrjbumNvOk2Sd7GI25ZEMsaK858RVNQN]
The long, long struggle to bring the quest of freedom through literacy into the 20th century was fought by one generation after another. The apartheid of Jim Crow segregation began in the United States, long before it was exported into South Africa. The energy utilized to keep a people chained in ignorance was a tragic waste of human gifts, for all concerned. The savagery inflicted on those who fed their hunger for knowledge was relentless, all-encompassing and did as much -- if not more – damage to the perpetrators of the ever-failing strategy to withhold literacy from those who lived out what Douglass discovered: that which some most feared, others most desired. And when the post-Civil War emancipators filled the legislative halls and established public schools for the formerly excluded, black and white, the South was transformed as thoroughly as was the “West” by the Homestead benefits.
Leftover learning, discarded texts, inadequate resources were piled up as barriers to success. The integrity of the minds of black folks was unassailable, though. The Old Folks kept singing more and more Little David’s into existence. From Du Bois to Booker T; from Anna Julia Cooper to Countee Cullen to James Weldon Johnson to Charles Hamilton Houston and Thurgood Marshall and Constance Baker Motley; to Langston Hughes and Paul Robeson and Zora Hurston: the brightest of the bright got into the school-room, the library, the church hall, the universities. Whenever they found a giant standing in their way, they hurled a stone word across the chasm. And the threatening giants and the walls began to tremble and eventually come tumbling down.
And the victims are blemished by a mark far worse than that imprinted on the brow of Cain. He, after all, was marked so that none would murder him, in retaliation for his murderous rage. Today, those who are marked and obligated to wander farther and farther away from their dreams often do not know that they have been signed in failure and washed in despair.
But the need is still there. It never disappears. And the sounds the Old Folks murmured, shouted and moaned linger still in the air we breathe. Little children, such as Linda Brown, in Topeka, Kansas (1954), and Sylvia Mendez, in Orange County, California (1946), were the elder siblings to the teenagers who constituted the “Little Rock Nine” (1957), and to Ruby Bridges (1960; the first black child to attend an all-white elementary school in the South) and the bewildered, trusting and courageous children of Maryland, North Carolina, Arkansas, Tennessee. Virginia, and the unnumbered legion who started on down the path to today.
No matter how many times the same soul-stealers – in whatever guise they assume – come into the places where we dwell, to hold our dreams hostage, just that many times – and one or two more, for necessity – are we obligated to grab whatever we have been given, or whatever we could quickly grab, and hurl defiance and re-commitment at the shadowy demons who tell us our efforts will not change. We cannot sacrifice our children to ignorance, abuse, neglect and denial. Too many of our sons and daughters are put into the solitary confinement that suffocates their imaginations. [A recent survey of the reestablishment of segregated schools, the UCLA Report is of great help: http://civilrightsproject.ucla.edu/news/press-releases/2014-press-releases/ucla-report-finds-changing-u.s.-demographics-transform-school-segregation-landscape-60-years-after-brown-v-board-of-education]
The Old Folks made a way out of no way. We are the Old Folks for the children being born to us today. And we need a resurrection of our minds and souls and bodies, so that we can shape those who will have to lead us, once again, through deep rivers, be they the Red Sea, the Jordan or floods that seek to wipe away the roads we trod.
What was true then is true now: we have to see beyond: There ain’t no grave that can hold my body down.