Tag Archives: slave spirituals

The Musical Jesus: From James Hal Cone to Jesus Walks

James Cone’s work The Spirituals and the Blues is a unique expression of African American political theology. In this text he seeks to examine the unique cultural foundation that has shaped both Spiritual and the genre of Blues as a form of musical expression. For Cone music can represent a cross section between political ideology and theological frameworks. Through this piece it is apparent that the distinctive experiences of African American has radically shape their view of politics and religion and that the connection between Spirituals and Blues makes sheds some light on this point. For him both are deeply connected to the point that you cannot one from the other. Furthermore, he believes that the use of Spirituals and the Blues have both been utilized by African American to subvert the oppressive forces of Western white supremacist culture. He writes: “Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture.” (p5-6). Ultimately for Cone the use of Spirituality and the Blues serves as a way for African American to seek liberation from political and theological institution that is both destructive and oppressive.

Cone does great work in explicating the differences between traditional notions of Spirituals and how he believes African Americans have actually used Spirituals. This begins with his rejection of a Marxian view of Spirituals. Marx believes that the Spirituals sung by the Africans slaves’ sole purpose was to act as an opiate for them in relation to their slave masters. Marx’s ideology is marred by his concept of class consciousness. From this he believed that Spirituals allowed the slaves to passively conform to the desires of their slave masters. Cone however, vehemently disagrees with this assessment. He believes that African slaves were keenly aware of the power of musical interpretation and inherently new the dangers it posed to the authority of the slave masters. Thus, the slaves had to be subtle in the ways that they used Spirituals as theme for liberation without alarming their white slave masters. The Exodus story and Moses served as one way that the slaves could elude to liberation that did not alert their masters to their intentions.

The Exodus narrative as a slave spiritual had a profound implication on the way the slaves envisioned their lives both politically as well as theologically. Moses’ message of liberation called for divine liberation in heaven as well as earthly liberation from the slave masters. Cone points to slaves like Nat Turner who courageously learned to interpret the bible for himself. It is from his version of scripture that he saw the Christian imperative for not only a spiritual liberation heaven but its Earthly manifestation in the mist of slavery. This ultimately led to his rebellion and subsequent death. Similarly to Cone’s configuration of the Spirituals he believes that the Blues had a similar message. The Blues represent a secularized version of the socio-political message that was expunged from Spirituals. They too could equally be used as tools of liberation against dominant oppressive groups. Much like spiritual the Blues could be used to articulate a powerful socio-political message with profound theological implications. They affirmed the personhood of African Americans in the face of institutions that were created to take this very thing away from them.

While reading Cone’s work I began to think about some of the other connections that can be made with between African American experiences and how that has translated into music to have implications for theology, politics, and society in general. I preface this by stating that James Cone wrote this particular work in the 1970’s so what he wrote was indeed insightful for the context to which it was written. However, I believe that the religious insights from spiritual are reflected within the work of African American’s in other genres of music as well. In today’s context I do not see theo-political issues reflected in any particular artist or genre rather I see it in various songs by various African American artists. For example, Kanye West in his song “Gorgeous” poses a very interesting question.

West is questioning the function of hip hop music in the 21st century. Much like the Blues did for African Americans in the 20th century hip hop resonates with ideal and experience of many African American youth today. This is complicated by the secular nature of hip hop music. Hip hop music in itself could be seen as the religion of the youth today. The thought, ideas, cultural values, and even its counter cultural elements are appealing to youths. Ultimately, West is posing the question has hip- hop music replaced the socio- political elements that were once held onto by the Blues and Spirituals. Hip hop is to the soul of modern youth as what spirituals were to slaves. While admittedly this is not the case for all of hip hop music, West may be on to something, certainly there are hip hop songs that articulate a political theology the likeness of spirituals and the blues. Kanye West’s own work is an example of this. His song “Jesus Walks,” although not a gospel song has some inherently spiritual dimensions to it. From the introduction to the hook the song is laced with theo-political implications. He begins with the verse:

“We at war ” “We at war with terrorism, racism” “But most of all we at war with ourselves”(Jesus walk)” “God show me the way because the Devil tryna break me down” (Jesus walk with me)”

These lines hint at how West views some of our current socio-political struggles. Threats such as terrorism, racism, and even our inner struggles can leave us helpless. He sees they only way out is through his belief in Jesus. Jesus serves as liberation in this context in much the same way that Christian theology function as a form of liberation for the slaves in the 18th and 19th centuries. West in this particular song is making use of theology and politics to articulate freedom from systems of oppression that dominate society today. Although West’s song gives insight to current use of African American political theology, I wonder what other songs and genres have similar themes.

Recommendations:

James Cone’s The Spirituals and The Blues

Efrem Smith and Phil Jackson. The Hip Hop Church: Connecting With The Movement Shaping Our Culture

Anthony Pinn, et. al.: Noise and Spirit: The Religion and Spiritual Sensibilities of Rap Music

(A THROW BACK!): Calvinism And Holy Hip Hop

White Saviorism Cultural Appropriation in Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop”

The Cross, Predestination, and Emmit Till

MTV is for Minstrel Television: Robin Thicke, Miley Cyrus, & Race

prophecy and deliverance.

Cornel West in his groundbreaking text work, Prophesy and Deliverance: A Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity,  attempts to outline a methodology by which we can understand African American political theology. Accordingly, those who study African American political theology must acknowledge the strong influence of evangelical and pietistic Christianity on it.  African American Christian traditions were begotten the moment the African slaves landed in the United States and were dominated by their slave masters who used the bible to justify it. White American Christians used the bible as tool to create servitude. However, the slaves took Christianity and used the biblical text, Protestant hymns, and Christian testimonies to interpret their lives. Ultimately, this engagement led to how West conceives of the black church. For West,  the black church is not limited to a particular denomination interpretation of church. Rather the black church is unified under by the shared experience of slaves to follow Jesus over the dogmatic and coercive Christianity that was presented to them by their slave owners. It was the black church that helped the slaves to not only understand themselves but their communities as well. West admits that the black church tradition took various forms to create what is now the rich diversity that is contemporary black theological reflection.

Most poignantly for West is the prophetic tradition originated from the black church, and its influence on the scope of African American political theology. He writes the prophetic Christianity’s greatest contribution is, “individuals regardless of class, country, caste, race, or sex should have the opportunity to fulfill his or her potentiality.” This serves as the core of prophetic Christian gospel for him. The God of this text is a transcendental God who has created all people equally and subsequently has provided divine salvation to the same extent. In other words, prophetic Christianity has provided African American political theology with the notion of radical egalitarianism. West describes this notion as “the Christian principle of the self-realization of individuality within the community.” While I agree with West for the most part on his view of the role of the prophetic in shaping the African American political theology I do believe that his view is limited. I strongly believe that Christianity is not the only religion that was used by slaves in developing African American political theology. Although the black church had arguably the loudest voice in this development it certainly was not the only voice. West monopolizes Christianity as the sole religious factor in the development of the political theology for the African slaves. It has been estimated that between 10-20 percent of the African slaves who came to America were actually Muslims. Many of these slaves fought fervently to maintain their Muslim identity. Some of succeed beyond the first generation but many were coerced into converting into Christianity.

There were also various theistic slave religions that came to America as well, through the transatlantic slave trade. Many of them shared similarities such as a belief in a Supreme Creator. African religious traditions were deeply rooted in balancing the spiritual realm and the natural world. Remnants of this are still seen today in how African Americans balance theology or religious modes of thinking with the realities that they experience in the natural world. My point here is this, Cornel West in his description of the black church and the influence of the prophetic nature of Christianity on the scope of African American political theology neglects the multifarious religious nature of the African slaves. Enslaved Africans did not learn American Christianity on a blank slate or without prior religious foundations. There were many different religious ideologies that influenced the development of African American political theology. To develop a more robust understanding of the political theology of African Americans it is important to recognize the polyreligious origins of the religion of the African American slaves.

A Strange Rending of Nature/Atlantis: Slave Perceptions of Nature & Aquaman – Pt. I

A Guest Post

“Harry Samuels is a student at UNC Asheville majoring in Environmental Management & Policy. He’s also very much obsessed with this Jesus guy – his politics, religious sensibilities, and the implications his teachings have for existential reality. Having been born in sunny Charleston , SC and raised in verdant Richmond, VA, he has spent his life in the American South- where many less-than-flattering portrayals and ideas of Jesus seem to prevail. Still, though, he has managed to “hold on to what is good” and seeks to explore , find, and maximize the intersection that lies between following Christ, sustainability of this gem of a planet, and environmental ethics.”

 Photo Credit: Anslem.edu

“Herein the longing of black men must have respect: the rich and bitter depth of their experience the unknown treasures of their inner life, the strange rendings of nature they have seen, may give the world new points of view.” – W.E.B. Du Bois ,  The Souls of Black Folk

                So after deciding to take a dive ( I couldn’t resist…) into Aquaman Vol. #0 , by Geoff Johns, although I enjoyed the story and the successful attempt (at least judging by reviews) to enlist some support for Aqauman (though you were always my favorite Aquaman! I’m a true fan!), I was beginning to grow suspicious of how easy it would be to link this to environmental justice/ racism. However, after just a reading the introduction and first chapter of Dr. Kimberly K. Smith’s African American Environmental Thought, I began to see some fascinating connections.

                **Spoiler Alert**

 Photo Credit: DC Entertainment

So, in the premier volume of John’s Aquaman, Arthur Curry (a.k.a. Aquaman)  is found in the hosptial with his father (Thomas) who is dying due to attacks from the malicious Black Manta. It is revealed in Thomas’s last breath that Arthur never cared much for going underseas, but that there was a message, he would need to deliver to his mother ….that Thomas never stopped waiting for her. Arthur Curry, further flustered by the paparazzi, proceeds to dive into the ocean in search of Atlantis. From the thermal vents that dot great ocean depths to the coral reefs teeming with colorful life, he swims and swims in search of this submerged city. All of this he passes only to be confronted by a blood-thirsty shark!  It seems Arthur (even yet!) isn’t without his telepathic marine-animal communication abilities as they seem to come in handy in warding off the savage behemoth of a fish. The same night, there happens to be an equally savage storm brewing that nearly tosses a woman and her father onto the rocky shoreline. Arthur jumps to action, though, and raises the boat out of the water before striking the rocks. The next morning, the duo thank Arthur and wonder at his amazing strength. Upon revealing his identity ( along with his skepticism regarding the existenc eof Atlantis), the father reveals that there’s a man(named Vulko) off the coast of Norway who was looking for someone like Arthur. Enticed by this news, Arthur seeks to find this man. As if things weren’t bizarre enough, as soon as Arthur arrives at the Vulko’s doorstep and tells him his identity,  he proceeds to bow down and shed a tear at the long-waited arrival of the Atlantean King!  After some backstory on why this is so important, it is eventually revealed that although Atlantis exists, Arthur’s mother(queen of Atlantis)  was killed by her son –( Arthur’s half-brother) – who then became the new ruler of Atlantis. His rule is harsh, vicious, and oppressive, and for this reason Vulko  rejoices in the coming of a new hope- a savior who can overturn this rule and make Atlanteans great again. Although Arthur is hesitant, he follows Vulko in an underwater dive to the underwater city.

So…what precisely is the connection between this and slave perceptions of nature? The answer may surprise you.

Throughout Vol. #0, it is clear that Arthur, although he is in fact, Aquaman and the long awaited savior of Atlantis, does not exude the person enthusiasm or desire to fulfill this role. In all the beauty and mystery ( to land dwellers, at least) of the ocean depths,and the prospect of returning to the great lost city, he is as a stranger…alienated even, in his own land. The death of his father, the death of his mother, the savage shark, his cold-hearted brother – it’s as if the ocean environment is infused with evil.

Smith, in African American Environmental Thought, makes the point early on that though we typically do not associate African Americans with environmental advocacy or the historic conservation effort, there are many historical black voices that have long reverred nature’s splendor. In the introduction, for instance, Smith compares Thoreau’s narratives of the natural with W.E.B. Du Bois’s. DuBois, in his reaction to the beauty of Bar Harbor , states,’ “Why do not those who are scarred in the world’s battle and hurt by its hardness travel to these places of beauty and drown themeselves in the utter joy of life?’ he asks. …But Du Bois’s answer  dwells less on nature’s glory than on grim social realities,’ Did you ever see Jim Crow waiting room?…Usually there is no heat in winter and no air in summer… The agent browbeats and contradicts you, hurries and confuses the ignorant…and sends you and me out on the platform, burning with indignation and hatred!” Thoreau , of course, wasn’t subject to such indignities. From Du Bois’s very different perspective, the beauty of nature wasn’t so easily disentangled from the ugliness of racial injustice. “ It’s as if the American landscape is infused with evil.

With regards to slave perceptions of nature, the closing paragraph of Smith’s introduction says it best,

“Exclusion from membership in the political community, suppression of a group’s collective memory, denial of economic and artistic opportunity – all of these things similarily impair one’s capacity to interact appropriately with the natural world. The environmental history of black Americans is a history of struggle against these forces of alienation and dispossession. As such, it lays bare the social conditions of environmental virtue and failure of Americans to realize those conditions. Racial oppression, as Du Bois put it, has worked a strange rending of nature.”

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