Of Griots and Grace: The Art of Oral History and the History of African American Religion
Williams, Regennia N., Black History Bulletin
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. The works of scholars who have studied this fact simply describe what is or was, not what should have been or even what will be in the future. Segregated sanctuaries abound, and the experiences of the African American women who worship there make the writing of reality-based plays like Crowns, possible.
The work of the late C. Eric Lincoln, a Christian minister and for many years a professor of Religion and Culture at Duke University, bears witness to the fact that race matters in American religion. In The Black Church Since Frazier, Lincoln states that Black people were yet anchored in the church, even as institutional religion continually reflected the tremendous social, economic, and political changes in the America of the 1960s. Amid simultaneous cries for integration, Black Power, Black Nationalism, and revolutionary change, Lincoln insisted that: "The Black Church as a self-conscious, self-assertive, inner-directed institution was born." (7) Lincoln contrasted this new nationalistic "Black Church" with the former accommodationist "Negro Church," which had been so carefully studied in an earlier period by sociologist E. Franklin Frazier. (8) For Lincoln, the teachings of the "Black Church" were anything but the "White Man's Religion." It should also be noted that Lincoln and his colleagues in the academy did not hesitate to criticize these same Black institutions, when they were convinced that the church could or should do more to enrich the lives of African American people or to address on-going problems with discrimination in the church. (9)
Lincoln published works during the second half of the 20th century, but discussions of "differences" between Black and White Christianity had appeared in earlier scholarly works, including those by W.E.B. Du Bois and Melville J. Herskovits. Both insisted that "Negro" church traditions, while born in America, were rooted in an African past. This, they suggested, made the traditions uniquely African American. (10) In this regard, they are not alone.
Playwright Regina Taylor allows the women in Crowns, to adorn themselves with African inspired head-wraps, to be possessed by the spirit in a "ring-shout," and to be in the presence of Elegba, a West African deity, in the section of the play dealing with funerals. In this regard, Ms. Taylor suggests that she, too, is convinced that Africanisms live on in American religious culture. (11)
In the last quarter of the twentieth century, historian Lawrence W. Levine, whose family and cultural roots are in the European Jewish community, used information from existing scholarship, the testimony of former slaves, and other primary sources to produce Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. In this insightful study, Levine helps readers gain a greater understanding of what makes Black Music (including spirituals and gospel music) black. He shows that "throughout the centuries of slavery and long after emancipation their song style, with its over-riding antiphony, its group nature, its pervasive functionality, its improvisational character, and its strong relationship in performance to dance and bodily movement and expression, remained closer to the musical styles of West Africa and the Afro-American music of the West Indies and South America than to the musical style of Western Europe." (12) In Levine's opinion, this was not the "White Man's Music."
Based on what Levine's study and countless others revealed, students who seek a better understanding of gospel music in the twenty-first century should, therefore, not be surprised to hear ministers and parishioners and choirs and members of the congregation engaged in call-and-response activities. The congregation sings with the choir in the sanctuary, and the music can also be heard in clubs, concert halls, and theatres. Gospel musicians sing and play what they feel, and sometimes they feel like dancing and shouting when they sing.
In celebrating the beauty of plays like Crowns, theatre-goers also celebrate the legacy of African American music-makers like Thomas Andrew Dorsey, "The Father of Gospel Music," and his favorite soloist Mahalia Jackson, who was quite a "hat queen" in her own right and the subject of the musical, "Sing, Mahalia, Sing." (13) The late Rev. James Cleveland--"The Prince of Gospel Music" and a Dorsey protege--and the Southern California Community Choir still have more than a few fans in this country. Students of African American culture are also indebted to poet-playwright Langston Hughes, whose gospel song-play, "Black Nativity," has been popularly received by audiences worldwide, since its premiere in the 1960s. Educators can facilitate student learning about America's cultural heritage, by using Crowns, and other twenty-first century additions to African American musical theatre. (14)
By using oral histories to tell the stories of ordinary people, Regina Taylor mined the rich field of firsthand accounts available to students of history and culture in archives across the country, and, frequently, on line. One of the oldest collections, the WPA Slave Narratives from the 1930s, in now available in a fully indexed on-line database maintained by the Library of Congress. Michael Gomez uses many of these oral testimonies in his research on Christianity among African Americans in the slave South, and Gomez is one of many scholars to note the similarities between the West African artists and storytellers known as griots and African American Christian preachers. (15) A relatively new Chicago-based African American video oral history project, The HistoryMakers[c], is in the process of building an archive of over 5,000 interviews, twice the number available in the WPA online collection of slave narratives. (16)
In 1936, while the nation was in the depths of a brutal economic depression, men and women on the payroll of one of the New Deal-era "made work programs", began the difficult work of collecting thousands of oral history "narratives" from former slaves. Many of these accounts discuss slave religion, spirituality, folklore, and music. In 1936, the great actor, singer, author, and activist, Paul Robeson, also took the time to pen a handwritten note about the importance of the West African griot family, "which sings and chants the glories and legends of the tribe." His words, contained in the epigram at the start of this discussion, remind us of the important lessons that the arts and humanities can teach us about African-descended peoples, lessons that playwrights and scholars continue to take to heart some seventy years after the writing of Robeson's note, and our lives, today, are richer for it.
(1.) Susan Robeson, The Whole World in His Hands: A Pictorial Biography of Paul Robeson (Secaucus, New Jersey: Citadel Press, 1981), 246.
(2.) W.E.B. Du Bois, "Of the Faith of Our Fathers," in The Souls of Black Folk (Boston: Bedford / St. Martin's, 1997), 149.
(3.) See Sterling Stuckey's essay, "Slavery and the Circle of Culture," in Nancy Elizabeth Fitch (Editor), How Sweet the Sound (Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1995). See also chapter nine in Michael Angelo Gomez, Exchanging Our Country Marks: The Transformation of African Identities in the Colonial and Antebellum South (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998; and Eddie Glaude's Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteen-Century Black America (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2000).
(4.) The entire line from a very popular spiritual says "Jesus is a rock in a weary land and a shelter in the time of storm." Used in this context "church" refers to the African American "body of Christ" / Jesus, with its millions of members. An excellent volume of spirituals for solo voice is the collection edited by the late Harry T. Burleigh, The Spirituals of Harry Burleigh (New York: Belwin-Mills, 1984); or R. Nathaniel Dett, Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro As Sung at Hampton Institute (Hampton, VA: Hampton University Press, 1927).
(5.) Du Bois, Souls, 150.
(6.) These ideas are frequently expressed in the teachings of The Honorable Elijah Muhammad, longtime leader of the Nation of Islam. See Elijah Muhammad, Message to the Blackman in America (Chicago: The Nation of Islam, c. 1966). The "Dedication" reads, "... To My People, The so-called American Negro. Freedom, Justice, Equality; Happiness, Peace of Mind, Contentment, Money, Good Jobs, Decent Homes--all these can be yours if you accept your God, Allah, now and return to His (and your original) religion, Islam."
(7.) C. Eric Lincoln, The Black Church Since Frazier (New York: Schocken, 1974), 109.
(8.) E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1964). In the opening of chapter one of this study, "The Religion of the Slaves," Frazier states: [O]ne must recognize from the beginning that because of the manner in which the Negroes were captured in Africa and enslaved, they were practically stripped of their social heritage."
(9.) For studies of strained relations within the church, see, for example, James Melvin Washington, Frustrated Fellowship: The Baptist Quest for Social Power (Macon, GA: Mercer, c1986) and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994)
(10.) See W.E.B. Du Bois, "The Negro Church" (1903) in Phil Zuckerman (editor), Du Bois on Religion (Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000), 110-140; and Melville J. Herskovits, The Myth of the Negro Past (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1941).
(11.) Among the American practitioners of Yoruba-based religions, the West African deity Eshu-Elegba is "the messenger opener-of the road." For a detailed description of various religions of the African Diaspora, see Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The "Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
(12.) Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 6.
(13.) Michael W. Harris, The Rise of Gospel Blues: The
Music of Thomas Andrew in the Urban Church (New York: Oxford University, 1992).
(14.) African American religious culture has long been a popular subject for American playwrights. For a discussion of this subject, see Warren Burdine's, "Let the Theatre Say "Amen," in Black American Theatre Forum, Volume 25, Number 1 (Spring 1991).
(15.) The WPA slave narratives are available at "Born in Slavery," http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/ snhome.html. (accessed September 21, 2005). Gomez compares the slave preacher to the West African griot in chapter nine of Exchanging Our Country Marks.
(16.) Visit http://www.thehistorymakers.com for more information.
THE SACRED MUSIC OF AFRICAN AMERICANS
Boyer, Horace. How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel. Washington, D.C.: Elliott and Clark Publishing, 1995.
Burton, Frederick. Cleveland's Gospel Music. Chicago: Arcadia, 2003.
Collins, Lisa and Ron Harris. "Moving On Up a Little Higher: Black Women and Gospel" in The American Legacy Woman c2002, 16-24.
Dett, R. Nathaniel. Religious Folk-Songs of the Negro As Sung at Hampton Institute. Hampton, VA: Hampton University Press, 1927.
Floyd, Samuel. The Power of Black Music: Interpreting Its History from Africa to the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
Harris, Michael W. The Rise of Gospel Blues: The Music of Thomas Andrew Dorsey in the Urban Church. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.
Heilbut, Anthony. The Gospel Sound: Good News and Bad Times. Garden City: Anchor Press / Doubleday, 1975.
Jackson, Clyde Owen. The Songs of Our Years: A Study of Negro Folk Music. New York: Exposition Press, 1968.
Johnson--Reagon, Bernice (editor). We'll Understand It Better By and By: Pioneering African American Gospel Composers. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.
Lovell, John, Jr. Black Song: The Forge and the Flame, The Story of How the Afro-American Spiritual Was Hammered Out. New York: Paragon House, 1972.
Southern, Eileen. The Music of Black Americans: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.
Spencer, Jon Michael (editor). The R. Nathaniel Dett Reader: Essays on Black Sacred Music (A special issue of Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology). Volume 5, Number 2. Duke University Press, Fall 1991.
The William Grant Still Reader: Essay on American Music (A special issue of Black Sacred Music: A Journal of Theomusicology). Volume 6, Number 2, Duke University Press, Fall 1992.
Walker, Wyatt Tee. Somebody's Calling My Name: Black Sacred Music and Social Change. Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1979.
Williams, Regennia N. Black America: Cleveland, Ohio. Chicago: Arcadia, 2002.
GOSPEL MUSIC DISCOGRAPHY
James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, "It's a New Day," Savoy.
Yolanda Adams. "The Best of Yolanda Adams," Verity.
Kurt Carr and the Kurt Carr Singers, "Awesome Wonder," Gospo Centric Records.
Aretha Franklin with James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir, "Amazing Grace," Atlantic.
Donnie McClurkin, "Donnie McClurkin." Warner Bros.
Gospel Music Workshop of America, "Women of Worship: It's Our Time," Aleho International Music.
"Handel's Messiah, A Soulful Celebration," Warner Alliance.
Mahalia Jackson, "Best Loved Spirituals," CBS Records.
"Malaco's Greatest Gospel Hits," Volume Two, Malaco Records.
Sounds of Blackness, "The Evolution of Gospel," A & M Records.
Various Artists, "Gospel's Greatest Hits," CGI Records, Inc.
VIDEOS (AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND/OR MUSIC)
"Amazing Grace with Bill Moyers," PBS Video, 1990. (88 minutes)
"Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Years," PBS Video, 1992 (Series. Each segment approximately one hour long)
"Frederick Douglass: When the Lion Wrote History," PBS Video, 1994. (90 minutes)
"Marian Anderson," PBS Video, 1991. (58 minutes)
"Paul Robeson: Tribute to an Artist," Embassy Home Entertainment, 1987. (30 minutes)
"This Far by Faith: African American Spiritual Journeys", PBS Video (Series. Each segment is approximately one hour long.)
"Roots of Resistance: A Story of the Underground Railroad," A Raja Productions Film, 1990. (58 minutes)
"Say Amen, Somebody," GTN Productions. (100 minutes)
RELIGIOUS HISTORY AND THE CULTURES OF THE AFRICAN DIASPORA
Bauer, Hans A. and Merrill Singer. African American Religion: Varieties of Protest and Accommodation (Second Edition). Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 2002.
Fitch, Nancy-Elizabeth (editor). How Sweet the Sound: The Spirit of African American History. Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace College Publishers, 2000.
Glaude, Eddie. Exodus!: Religion, Race, and Nation in Early Nineteenth-Century Black America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000.
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994.
Lincoln, C. Eric and Lawrence Mamiya. The Black Church in the African American Experience. Durham: Duke University Press, 1990.
McMickle, Marvin A. An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage. Valley Forge, PA, 2002.
Muhammad, Elijah. Message to the Blackman in America. Chicago: Muhammad's Mosque of Islam No. 2, 1965.
Murphy, Larry G. (editor). Down by the Riverside: Readings in African American Religion. New York and London: New York University Press, 2000.
Raboteau, Albert. "Slave Religion: The Invisible Institution" in the Antebellum South. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Sernett, Milton C. (editor) African American Religious History: A Documentary Witness (Second Edition). Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999.
Walker, Sheila A. African Roots / American Cultures: Africa in the Creation of the Americas. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Washington, James Melvin. Frustrated Fellowship: The Black Baptist Quest for Social Power. Macon, GA: Mercer, c1986.
Williams, Juan and Quinton Dixie. This Far by Faith: Stories from the African American Religious Experience. New York: HarperCollins, 2003.
Zuckerman, Phil (editor). Du Bois on Religion. Walnut Creek, CA: AltaMira Press, 2000.
http://memory.loc.gov/ammem/snhtml/snhome. html, The WPA Slave Narratives.
http://www.thehistorymakers.com/, The HistoryMakers African American Video Oral History Arhive.
AFRICAN AMERICAN FASHION HISTORY
Cunningham, Michael and Craig Marberry. Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats. New York: Doubleday, 2000.
Starke, Barbara M., "Nineteenth-Century African American Dress" in Patricia A. Cunningham and Susan Voso Lab. Dress in American Culture. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.
White, Constance C. R. "The Invisible Thread Running through Fashion" in American Legacy Woman c.2002, 26-30.
Of Griots and Grace: The Art of Oral History and The History of African American Religion
by Reginnia N. Williams
Connections to High School
High School students enjoy oral history projects that involve opportunities for them to be historians and to interact with others. In this lesson, designed to help demonstrate how historians use sources to write about the past, students will be able to explore the cultural history of African-descended peoples in the Americas as documented in numerous sources, including thousands of oral history narratives and songs.
This lesson will require students and teachers to work with a religious institution or community center to identify potential interviewees and schedule interviews to complete an oral history project. Introductory notes, provided by the photographer and interviewer responsible for producing the book Crowns: Portraits of Black Women in Church Hats, provide useful tips on planning an oral history project involving members of African American faith communities. Teachers may want to have students read this book--and/or see the popular musical play based on this work--at some point during the implementation of this lesson plan. Information on another very successful national African American oral history project, The HistoryMakers[c], is available at www.thehistorymakers.com. Objectives:
1. To introduce students to oral history methodology.
2. To collect, transcribe, and preserve oral histories.
3. To understand the history of African American religious institutions and related cultural programs.
National Council or the Social Studies (NCSS) Standards U.S. History Teacher Expectations:
* Help learners analyze group and institutional influences on people, events, and elements of culture in both historical and contemporary settings;
* Assist learners in acquiring knowledge of historical content in United States history in order to ask large and searching questions that compare patterns of continuity and change in the history and values of the many peoples who have contributed to the development of the continent of North America;
* Guide learners in acquiring knowledge of the history and values of diverse civilizations throughout the world, including those of the West, and in comparing patterns of continuity and change in different parts of the world;
* Enable learners to develop historical understanding through the avenues of social, political, economic, and cultural history and the history of science and technology.
National Center for History in the Schools Standards (http://nchs.ucla.edu/standards/toc.html):
* Era 9, Postwar United States (1945 to Early 1970s)
Standard 4: The struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties
* Era 10, Contemporary United States (1968 to the Present)
Standard 2: Economic, social, and cultural developments in contemporary United States
Good quality recording equipment and storage media is essential. If the budget permits, digital video is ideal, but if this is not possible, audiocassette recorders and tapes will suffice.
Please designate eight to ten class periods to complete this project.
1. At least two sessions should be devoted to the history of Africans in America and the rise of the Black church and related cultural expressions. The source materials identified in the companion BHB article can be used for this purpose. The first class session could consider the period to 1968, and the second might focus on 1968 to the present. For two additional periods, students should focus on the various musical expressions associated with African American religious traditions, including spirituals, hymns, gospels, and the "freedom songs" of the Modern Civil Rights Era (c. 1955-1968).
2. Oral history methodology should be the focus of at least two additional class periods. For information on conducting, transcribing, archiving, and referencing oral history sources, students should visit the Oral History Association (OHA) website, an excellent source of information. Articles on oral history and OHA Interview Guidelines are available on line at http://omega.dickinson.edu/organizations/oha/.
3. Once students have a basic understanding of the importance of oral history narratives within the field of African American history, they can begin to develop their own oral history interview protocol. These questions could focus on three general areas:
a. Personal Life of the Narrator
b. The History of the Religious Institution to Which the Narrator Belongs
c. The Evolving Role of Churches In American Social History
d. Evolving Musical Traditions of the Church
4. In order to obtain enough questions for a one-hour interview, students could work in small groups to develop a list of four or five basic questions for each area, and then come together as a class to finalize the complete list of questions. As with all research involving human subjects, teachers should stress the importance of treating the interviewees with the utmost respect and conducting the interviews in accordance with existing laws and policies. In this regard, knowledge of the aforementioned OHA guidelines will be most helpful.
5. After reading and discussing the guidelines, students should use another class session to familiarize themselves with the recording equipment. Working in pairs, students can conduct brief (15-minute) mock interviews. In the process, they can determine the best placement for the recording device, become sensitive to background noise and other distractions, and develop the active listening skills that would allow them to develop good follow-up questions during the interview session.
6. In addition to transcribing and submitting the interview transcripts, students should also be encouraged to write brief biographies of their individual oral history narrators and give in-class presentations based on their subject. If time permits, this activity could also be used to inspire the development of works of literary art, including poems, songs, short stories, and plays based on the narrators' life stories. Most importantly, the transcripts and tapes should be housed in a permanent collection, preferably in a library, to ensure their safekeeping for future use.
Suggestions for Related Classroom Discussions or Debates
1. Should faith-based communities be involved in shaping public policy in America?
2. How can the government ensure the protection of First Amendment Rights while guaranteeing the separation of church and state?
Regennia N. Williams is an Assistant Professor of History at Cleveland State University, Cleveland, Ohio; email: email@example.com.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Of Griots and Grace: The Art of Oral History and the History of African American Religion. Contributors: Williams, Regennia N. - Author. Magazine title: Black History Bulletin. Volume: 68. Issue: 2 Publication date: Summer-Fall 2005. Page number: 15+. © 2007 Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.