Of Griots and Grace: The Art of Oral History and the History of African American Religion

Article excerpt

I am a singer and an actor. I am primarily an artist. Had I been born in Africa, I would have belonged, I hope, to that family which sings and chants the glories and legends of the tribe. (1)--Paul Robeson, 1936

There is an extraordinarily rich body of music known as "spirituals." Created by enslaved Africans in America, these songs are a testament to a people's creative genius, collective desire for freedom, and retaining of "Africanisms" in musical-performance styles. A century ago, the great historian W.E.B. DuBois described these sacred songs as "the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil." (2) DuBois was not alone in his admiration for the spirituals. Sterling Stuckey, Michael Gomez, Eddie Glaude, Jr. and other scholars have carefully researched the songs' origins, contexts, and meanings. Not the least significance of the spirituals was their usefulness in forging and fostering a sense of community among a people defined by law and social policy as the "least of all." (3) Today, nearly 140 years since the formal demise of slavery, the words of some of the most popular spirituals remind us that throughout history, the African American church has been "a shelter in the time of storm." (4) How is it that African American churches, from slavery times to the present, have always served as centers of praise and rejoicing, even in the midst of great trials and tribulations?

Crowns, a gospel musical based on a best-selling book of the same name, uses oral history, music, and dance to provide some answers to this and other questions about the history of African American religion. The musical focuses on a cultural ritual long associated with church attendance: women donning their fanciest hats. Crowns asks audiences to consider the importance of people's relationships within church congregations, as well as with their church itself. By witnessing this theatrical production--or reading the book that inspired it--and seeing so many beautiful African American women in church hats--students can discover that these people in wearing their "crowns" are doing more than making a fashion statement. They are helping to keep an important African American tradition alive--and tradition is a very serious matter in the African American religious community.

In the last century, Christianity was frequently dismissed by some members of the African American community as the "white man's religion," a relic of the past, an ever-present reminder of how African traditions were lost or stolen as U.S. blacks were forcibly assimilated to European American cultural norms. (6) While blacks and whites have always had a cultural exchange in this country, it is also true that African American worship traditions--frequently developed in isolated, segregated settings controlled by African Americans--provide some of the most obvious evidence of the survival of African culture in America. The testimonies of the women in Crowns suggest that it was the women's faith in God, and in each other, that helped sustain them, their cultural institutions, and the larger African American community.

Numerous sociologists and historians have joined the chorus of voices singing the praises of the church members as keepers of tradition. Some were active members of the church. Some, like Du Bois, eventually became alienated from the church and skeptical about many religious teachings; still others were heirs of different faith traditions, or were not affiliated with any particular religious group. Despite these differences, all of the scholars discussed in this essay acknowledged the importance of the church in shaping African American history and producing cultural expressions.

Many African Americans, including the former slave, Frederick Douglass (1818-1895), provided extensive oral testimony on the tragic history of racism in American Christianity--a partial explanation of why the modern church remains a largely segregated institution. …