Yet with a Steady Beat: Contemporary U.S. Afrocentric Biblical Interpretation

By Randall C. Bailey | Go to book overview

THE SORROW SONGS: LAMENTS FROM ANCIENT
ISRAEL AND THE AFRICAN AMERICAN DIASPORA

Wilma Ann Bailey Christian Theological Seminary

The ancient Israelites and the enslaved Africans of the United States, two communities of disparate time and place, found a connection in a common experience of slavery, loss of a homeland, exile, and assaults on their sense of identity and dignity. Beyond the shared experience, Blacks and Jews created a similar way of responding to the experiences that traumatized their communities. Both produced poetry and set it to music. In both communities, the laments, as we call them in the ancient Israelite corpus, and the spirituals or sorrow songs, as they are known in the African American community, functioned as a catharsis, a mnemonic device, and an affirmation of the intrinsic hopefulness that nurtures life in the most difficult of situations. The structure of the laments of the two communities was not identical, but the sentiments were the same. [Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow] wrote the ancient Jewish poet (Lam 1:12b NRSv). [Nobody knows the trouble I've seen; nobody knows my sorrow] the African counterpart sang. African Americans identifying with the Ancient Israelites adopted imagery from their stories to express their own pain and longing. Both communities hoped to move the heart of God as they poured out their grief.

Connecting these two diverse groups, James Weldon Johnson wrote in 1925,

It is not possible to estimate the sustaining influence that the story of the
trials and tribulations of the Jews as related in the Old Testament exerted
upon the Negro. This story at once caught and fired the imaginations of
the Negro bards, and they sang, sang their hungry listeners into a firm
faith that as God saved Daniel in the lion's [sic] den, so would He save
them; as God preserved the Hebrew children in the fiery furnace, so
would He preserve them; as God delivered Israel out of bondage in
Egypt, so would He deliver them. (1985: 20–21)

-61-

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