Sorrow Songs and Flying Away: Religious Influence on Black Poetry
Komunyakaa, Yusef, Cross Currents
When blacks first encountered Europeans and their religion, a strange and complex bond was forged. Newly encased in the manacles of slavery, they had their first taste of Christianity. Usually, there was a chapel at the center of each holding pen. It was a symbol of conquest and power. In my recent visit to Ghana's Cape Coast Castle, the presence of the chapel hit me harder than the small cells for slaves, harder than that stone path that slanted down to where the ships would have been anchored, waiting in the deep night of no return. The priests were there to baptize each shackled captive, giving him or her a Christian name before the merciless, endless journey began on the salty winds of the sea.
True, from the outset, Christianity was at least a double bind for persons of African descent. It marked the loss of their gods and their freedom, but it also offered a refuge. It became both a state of being and a state of mind where a covenant could be enacted and exacted. The old traditional gods had been diminished, defeated, silenced. And if they existed at all, they could now only linger in disguise.
Although African slaves were at first unwilling converts, after they survived months in the bellies of ships on the rough seas and lived under the constant threat of cat-o'-nine-tails, some of them embraced Christianity. In the new world, they would build their churches on that infamous rock-on hope, possibility, and imagination. The idea of God protected them. And because of this covenant, a spiritual being would fight their earthly battles. Through obedience-momentarily on the other side of fear--they delivered themselves to God.
Even so, there were questions hiding inside these doubly-bowed heads. This precarious uncertainty is evoked in the following excerpt from the verse at the end of the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave:
They loudly talk of Christ's reward, And bind his image with a cord, And scold, and swing the lash abhorred, And sell their brother in the Lord To handcuffed heavenly union.
The binding of image and cord echoes the binding doubleness of this two-sided covenant. The new black Christians were bound both for good and ill. The misery of their captivity was balanced against the promise of a fairer world beyond this one. Inevitably, this covenant found expression in spirituals, folk songs, and poetry. It was a literature that responded directly to the many sorrows of slavery, the desire for rescue and flight, and did so within the empowering framework of Christian faith.
DO THE SORROW SONGS SING TRUE?
The African American church has long been a paradigm of unbroken rituals, a place of refuge, a safe haven, a psychological space where a protracted performance of confrontation and release could exist, and it has also been a temple-whether converts were assembled under branches of a gigantic oak or beneath a heavy, blue sky-where sacred allegiances are created through sermons, testimonies, and songs. Of course, these songs are what W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) called "sorrow songs," lyrics that plunge us back into the spirit and flesh of oral expression. In The Souls of Black Folk, he poses some fundamental questions:
Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope-a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometimes, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?"
The sentiments of the believer in the old song "When My Blood Runs Chilly and Cold" allow us to hear "the minor cadences of despair" changing to "calm confidence" and the hope of triumph:
I'm so glad I got religion in time, I'm so glad I got religion in time, I'm so glad I got religion in time, Oh mah Lawd, Oh mah Lawd, what shall ah do to be saved? …