Monday, October 21, 2013

"A Long Way From Home"

When some brilliant, charismatic and eloquent young African Americans reflect on the state of our culture today, there are certain perceptions that wound my heart when I hear them.  For one significant example, The Reverend Otis Moss made the following comment in an interview conducted by the Center for American Progress:
There is a tradition in certain black churches of what I call the merging of our blues with the Gospel. In order for you to accurately sing gospel music, [you must know that] gospel music is built on the chords of the blues. And I think in the best of the black church tradition, the blues speaks to the existential, to what you’re dealing with. And the best of our tradition says, “This is the reality, this is the existential crisis, this is the problem. We serve a God who demands that we take our blues and sing the Gospel simultaneously.” []

"God demands that we take our blues and sing the Gospel simultaneously.”  Somewhere or other, I thought to myself, the spiritual and cultural ancestors of Reverend Moss would be shaking their heads over that sincere insight of his. If there is anything we need to renew in our intellectual and theological tradition, it is the central fact that the enslaved Africans who began communicating with each other, “huddled spoon-fashioned” in the ships’ holds, became the exemplary post-modern existential actor when (in the words of Vincent Harding), they chose to survive. We know that part of the science of enslavement as it was refined for maximum control of the captured African children and adults entailed separating the captured from those who spoke the same language. Watching the late Bede Abram perform his introduction to Black Theology, telling us to hear the moaning of the chained Africans as an act of resistance and of restoration of the self, I learned to send my imagination into the moment.

A child begins crying. Far on the other side of the floating dungeon, a mother disconnected from her own offspring – or a father, lost to his children – begins humming a “sleep song” and the sound moves through the darkness. Another throat takes up the sound and soon, the women and men and children are a community-of-the-moment on more levels than contained by their common imprisonment. The captors hear these sounds and the disquiet of their souls intensifies. They cannot control the sound of the darkness; nor can they dismiss its power.  At the initiation of the groaning and murmuring, the sending of sound to comfort the disconnected, something marvelous, strange, at once old and new, entered into the world.  Bruno Chenu says it well: “In African music no one remains outside the singing.” (The Trouble I've Seen: the big book of Negro Spirituals, Chenu, 88)

Yes, the Blues speak to the existential condition. What Moss says has been asserted by Douglass, by Du Bois, by Albert Murray, by James Cone; and by performer after performer. Those who embody the blues tradition have possessed “a deep-seated sense of exclusion, disaffection, alienation, disillusionment, detachment, dissatisfaction, disorientation, and so on…” These singer/writer/artist/lovers are known as “Blues Heroes” – by Albert Murray (in The Hero and the Blues), and by many other critics.  But they are not first and foremost. The piled-up descriptors just mentioned fit those on the long walk to the ships; those who were locked in floating prisons; those who sang in order to use their singing to break through the walls within which they existed.

Post-modernist?  Absolutely.  Existential?  Before breakfast.  Africans became “black” through the process by which they were permanently dislocated from all sense of home; by which trauma was deliberately induced through rape, torture, and sensory deprivations. There was no past by which to be nourished, no future for which to plan. Only the hungry, scarring present to be endured.  And they moaned. They plotted. They performed non-verbal intricacies of communication that are still present in the culture today.  Black was not the condition of enslavement; it was the result of their acts of transcendence performed over and over. They started with the “blues condition” and used their cultural genius to reconstruct that which the enslavers were, with demonic determination, attempting to grind into submissive dust.   Chenu also says this:
Through all these musical manifestations, a communal identity was built up. The slaves did not have a wide choice of means to recognize each other in the diversity of their origins and grow into belonging to a community of destiny.  But song was one of them. It allowed the group to exist, and to last, on the basis of a common identity that was forged by the creativity of vocal expression. (95)

A community of destiny.  The community of the blues artists lasts about as long as the song lasts – or if the singer/performer is unusually lucky, until the next morning.  The Blues have an incredible power to “tell it like it is.” But these songs cannot tell anyone “what it ought to be.” It does not surprise me that many scholars will discuss the “crossover” phenomenon of blues music. At many concerts, these critics contend, the vast majority of the audiences are non-blacks. Black people seem less interested in the traditions of the blues. And this has been noticed and remarked upon since the middle of the 20th century.  But more and more, we have to admit, the same thing can – and must – be said about the audience for the body of Black Sacred Song known as “the Spirituals.”  Reverend Otis Moss implies this in our opening quotation. A blending of Blues and Gospel music is, in his reckoning, “the best of the black church tradition.” 

That indeed may be true.  At least the newer tradition. Very few travel very far back into the Black tradition to hear or sing the Spirituals. But fewer African Americans would consider themselves “churched” by any sociological measure.  This phenomenon has also been increasingly common since the middle of the last century.  From the days immediately following the end of the Civil War (whenever it did indeed end…) there were many who no longer wished to have anything to do with those old days, those old ways.  The young people who formed the Fisk Jubilee Singers, for only one example, had to be persuaded to sing the Spirituals.  They preferred to perform music that proved their emancipated status. But it was their performances of the Spirituals, not Mozart, which allowed them to raise the money to endow their university.

The Blues and much of what is known as Hip Hop music today seem to manifest the best of the existential mandate of blackness.  The Blues tell us “what is real.”  Most commercialized, corporately appropriated Hip Hop seems to tell us “what is fantasy” according to the best of classical Hollywood gangster or western films. But what will feed the ever-present hunger to form a community of destiny? Again, who will sing these songs?  We have millions for whom “Sometimes I feel like a motherless child” could have been composed this morning. And we, all of us, know that in spite of the great symbolic exceptions, the rest of that song is also true: we are “a long ways from home.”  The old ones are asking, “What will you build, my child?”