Sacred Songs Help Blacks Connect to Their History : Spirituals: Religious music is viewed as a way to teach, comfort, inspire, persuade and motivate African-American churchgoers.


They sang when they were snatched from their African native land and transported to distant shores; they sang when the scorching sun beat down on their backs in the cotton fields of their white masters, and they sang during the civil rights era as they marched for freedom and justice.

Traditionally, African-Americans have used sacred music to help ease the pain and agony of oppression. The melodies were sung with the belief that God would deliver them from their oppressors.

These sacred songs--moans, chants, psalms, shouts, hymns, jubilees--were woven through work, play and worship in America. Black sacred music functioned as the oral tradition of African slaves, an integral part of their daily lives.

Everywhere they congregated--in secret meetings, in the fields, in the slave quarters, in camp meetings and revivals--the slaves in America sang their sacred songs.


The Rev. Jeremiah Wright, pastor of the 6,000-member Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago and a noted black sacred music historian, said: “The slave songs, the sorrow songs or the Negro spirituals are the most outstanding and beautiful artifacts from the ugliest period of North American history.

“The broad range of the African slaves’ theological agenda, as documented in the spirituals, covered such topics as protests against slavery, the desire for liberation, the omnipresence, omnipotence and omniscience of God, the similarity between their plight and the Israelite slaves, the commonality between themselves and Jesus of Nazareth, the hurt and humor of the human predicament, the hypocrisy of the slave owners, eschatological hope, death and afterlife.”

Today, well-trained black musicians, hymnologists and historians are pressing black church leaders to showcase these songs in Sunday morning worship services as instruments to teach, comfort, inspire, persuade and motivate black church-goers.

A case in point was a recent debut by the Imilonji KaNtu Choral Society of Soweto, South Africa, at the St. Mark’s United Methodist and Riverside churches, both of New York.

At St. Mark’s, the 65-voice choir shared a billing with the Addicts Rehabilitation Choir of New York and Pueblo de Dios, a Cuban quartet that mixes authentic Cuban folk music and Afro-Cuban rhythms with traditions imported from the United States.

During the performance at St. Mark’s, the Choral Society of Soweto brought their South African traditions to the black church. They symphonically swung their arms and their bodies to the beat of African tunes; they shook their buttocks at the audience; they performed various tribal dances in colorful but skimpy garb, and they sang in their native language.

The Soweto Choir’s tunes ranged from celebration to protest to dedication. For example, one song, “Ugwayimane,” is an African wedding tune typically sung by the bridal party.

Mary Mxadana, public relations officer for the society, told the audience at St. Mark’s: “In an effort to keep our roots, we preserve our music and dance to preserve our culture. We could sing in English, but we want Americans to know that black sacred music has its roots in Africa.”

A more serious piece, “Bawo Thixo Somandla,” is a Xhosa tribal song that questions God about human cruelty. It ends with a plea to let the cup pass since the yoke is heavy. And finally, the choir sang the national anthem of South African blacks, “Nkosi Sikelel’i Afrika,” adopted by Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Namibia.

The performance by the choir was in keeping with a growing feeling among black historians that greater emphasis is needed on the sacred music of Africans. Traditional hymns written by whites of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries and inflicted on blacks by white missionaries, fail to meet the spiritual needs of black Americans, the historians say.

One historian and hymn writer, Jon Michael Spencer, said: “The problem is, the hymns of the past are laced with racist, classist and sexist language. We need to either revise the language or sing a new song.”

He said most of Charles Wesley’s hymns contain blatant sexist language. Wesley, the brother of Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, was considered one of the most gifted hymn writers in England, writing over 5,500 hymns.

Spencer is associate professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

To rectify the problem, Spencer and others argue that more African-Americans need to produce their own hymnals of music written by African-Americans.

United Methodists, with input from blacks, have altered several Wesley hymns that had racial overtones. They also altered masculine language in references to God in their old hymnal.

Similar changes in the language of Wesley’s hymns were made in other recent hymnals, “The Episcopal Hymnal 1982" and “Lutheran Book of Worship.”

The National Black Catholic Clergy Caucus of the Catholic Church produced its first African-American Catholic hymnal in 1983. Authorizing such a hymnal spurred black Catholic congregations to incorporate gospel music in their services.

Roman Catholic Bishop Emerson Moore, auxiliary of the New York Archdiocese, said the new hymnal compiles spirituals and hymns from the black Christian tradition, especially the black Catholic tradition. “Nothing was wrong with the songs we sang before. But there was a need for music that would be much more identified with the black tradition and black cultures.”

Spencer praises such efforts but stressed that African-Americans should not stop with reworking old hymns. They should also compose new songs that are liberating--songs like the “freedom songs” that nurtured the common dream during the civil rights era, he said.

Martin Luther King Jr., the slain civil rights activist, knew their importance well. He explained in his book, “Why We Can’t Wait” (Mentor, 1964), that the important part of the mass meetings for black and white activists were the freedom songs.

And Wyatt T. Walker, one of the leading proponents of black worship, wrote in his book “Somebody’s Calling My Name” (Judson Press 1979): “The entire nonviolent movement was religious in tone, and the music did much to reflect and reinforce the religious base on which it stood. In the course of its development, the movement drew into its wake many people who were non-religious, irreligious and anti-religious, but singing freedom songs for them and for others of diverse persuasions was a means of comfortable participation.

Most black historians and hymnologists say the wave of the future is building black pride by bonding blacks more closely to their musical past--a revival of black sacred song, old and new, folk and composed, rural and urban.

“It is in a real sense the song of the people,” wrote Sister Thea Bowman in an introduction in African-American Catholic Hymnal. “The music comes from a people who share and claim a common history, common experience, common oppression, common values, hopes, dreams and visions.”