The Foundational Influence of Spirituals in African-American Culture: A Psychological Perspective

Article excerpt

There is a voluminous body of published scholarship on the history and cultural influence of the African-American spirituals tradition, beginning a century ago with a series of essays by W.E.B. Du Bois (1989) in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). However, there has been relatively little focus on spirituals from a comprehensively psychological and cultural perspective. That is, the issue of how the spirituals have functioned psychologically in the culture, both during North American slavery and in the time since the end of official slavery in 1865, has received some attention in several different realms but usually in piecemeal fashion. For example, John Lovell Jr.'s (1972) important work, Black Song, employs literary analysis to uncover recurrent psychological themes in the lyrics of slave spirituals. Dena Epstein (1977, 3-17) also explores aspects of the psychological dimension in her work, including a particularly illuminating exploration of the psychological experience of African captives in the Middle Passage and a discussion of the ways in which the singing of the captives reflected key aspects of cultural adaptation. James Cone (1991) and others (for example, Hopkins and Cummings 1991; Earl 1993; Kirk-Duggan 1997) have constructed experiential profiles of slave singers through a primarily theological lens, while others (Levine 1977; Raboteau 1978; Stuckey 1987) have elucidated circumscribed psychological aspects of the spirituals through the perspective of cultural history. Samuel Floyd's (1995) analysis builds substantially on previous work while also exploring important musicological elements. Thus, although there has been an absence of scholarship that focuses comprehensively on psychological and cultural issues, it is quite possible to begin to construct such a work through scholarly synthesis.

In this article, I want to share some small parts of the synthesis I have developed over the last several years, rooted in my background as a singer and clinical psychologist. I want to focus specifically on issues of emotion, resilience, and psychological coping, examined through the dual lenses of personal introspection and scholarly analysis. This discussion carries significant implications for a more complete understanding of the enduring legacy of Harry T. Burleigh, who devoted considerable time--both as a composer and as a performing artist--to the evolution of the spirituals in early twentieth-century American culture. As Simpson (1990, 289-300) has shown, much of Burleigh's life work was influenced by his immersion in the spirituals, beginning with his relationship with his blind grandfather Hamilton Waters, from whom Burleigh learned many of the songs that he would later arrange for performance in concert settings.

My own entry into this field of study began quite serendipitously. Having recently returned to active singing after many years of work as a practicing clinical psychologist and university professor, I volunteered in November 1990 to perform a voice recital at a fundraiser for a community organization in Denver, Colorado. I programmed a wide variety of repertoire in the recital, ranging from musical theater to European art songs and opera arias. Consistent with traditional practice, I ended the recital with a set of Negro spirituals.

Following the program, the community outreach coordinator from the Denver Museum of Natural History approached me about doing a program for the museum's upcoming Black History Month celebration. Without hesitating, I volunteered to do a lecture-recital program titled "Hidden Meanings in African-American Spirituals." The outreach coordinator proceeded, enthusiastically, to schedule my program for the first weekend in February. I was left with the task of delivering the program I promised. While I had sung spirituals all my life and was aware of much of the popular lore concerning the use of the spirituals for clandestine communication on the Underground Railroad in the nineteenth century, I had never devoted any substantial time to serious study of this issue. …