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Some time during Judah’s exile in the 6th century BC, an anonymous Jewish psalmist wrote: “By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there we hung up our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, ‘Sing us one of the songs of Zion!” How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange [foreign] land?” (Psalm 137)

In 1982, the British reggae band Steele Pulse sang these lines in their “Worth His Weight in Gold:” “Remember when we used to dress like Kings/Conquer of Land/Conquer of Seas/Civilization far removed from caves/ Oppressors man live deh/I curse that day they made us slaves/How can we sing in a strange land?/Don’t want to sing in a strange land?”

It is clear that a 20th century Reggae band used the same lament as a 6th century Jew as the former saw the experiences of Jews in the 6th century BC as similar to that of Africans from the 15th century through the present. Both texts though move from lament to hope, and this is thematic in African-American singing, especially the tradition of Spirituals.

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The Spirituals have a history that date from the antebellum period, and the consensus among scholarship is that Spirituals carry double meanings. They draw upon the imagery of biblical texts to speak to both the sorrowful situation of enslavement yet the hope that God will liberate those enslaved. Spirituals belong both to the Church and to the community as a whole, and this is arguably why the double meaning is inherent in them (African American Christian Worship, Melva Costen, 2007, p. 83)

Presbyterian musicologist Melva Costen notes:

The civil rights movement allowed an opportunity for renewed emphasis on the use of Spirituals as an important form of congregational music. The choice of Spirituals, the folk songs of a people whose freedom was not yet assured, was natural for Martin Luther King, Jr., in whose denominational tradition the ‘songs of Zion’ had continued to be sung. The protest songs of antebellum slaves became protest songs, recalled and re-created for the twentieth-century freedom movement. (Costen, 85)

Poet Kevin Young places the Spirituals within the broader category of the storying tradition, which is the artistic form of narrative and other aspects of orality among African Americans. Young engages the DuBoisean notion of “double consciousness” in commenting on the value of the Spirituals, but cautions his readers against merely “lifting the veil” to peek at Spirituals as mere art, “but also to embrace the powerful notion of vision and the vantage the caul provides—otherwise we are left with art as mere epitaph, or sorrow song, rather than as a way of finding and fighting and freeing ourselves.” (The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness, Kevin Young, 2012, p. 67.)

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I Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Jesus” is a popular Spiritual that has an unknown date of composition. In support of Costen’s claim, this Spiritual received a slight re-contextualization during the civil rights era with “Jesus” being replaced by “freedom.” Undoubtedly this Spiritual became a protest song.

More recently in 2016, singer and poet Jamila Woods recast this Spiritual once again in her song, “Holy.” This particular song reflects Woods’ upbringing in the African-American church, her current faith, and her appropriation of scripture. She begins the song with these lyrics: “Give me today my daily bread/Help to walk alone ahead/Though I walk through the darkest valley I will fear no love/Oh my smile my mind reassure me I don’t need no one.” Then, the chorus to the same tune as “I Woke Up This Morning”:

Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me
With my mind set on loving me
Woke up this morning with my mind set on loving me
With my mind set on loving me
I’m not lonely, I’m alone
And I’m holy by my own
I’m not lonely, I’m alone
And I’m holy by my own

Though one could argue that Jamila Woods’ song has nothing to do with protest, I would assert that it does. Woods admits her music is protest music; and that “Holy” is a protest song: “In the first part of that song, I’m thinking about how hard it is for people, especially black people, to find love and to love each other, especially in the context of Chicago, where you can be afraid.” (“Jamila Woods: The Soul of a Protestor,” Pitchfork, August 4, 2016, Adrienne Samuels Gibbs, ) This song demonstrates the malleability of the Spiritual as Woods draws from our spiritual roots, but it continues the protest nature of Spirituals.

In the singing of the Spiritual, African-American Christianity has featured the motifs of lament and hope. The emphasis on such is rooted in a history and a present of oppression, and a longing for freedom. This history reminds us of the need to continue to apply our faith to the needs of African Americans who suffer from police occupation in many of our communities, the highest unemployment rate in the country, and the plague of gun violence.

We must sing afresh that “There’s a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole/there’s a balm in Gilead that can heal the sin sick soul.”

Eric Washington

Eric Washington teaches history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where he directs African and African Diaspora Studies.

3 Comments

  • Dale Cooper says:

    My spirit is moved– deeply– Eric, by your reflection. I give our Lord’s Spirit thanks for prompting me afresh toward lament–and hope.
    “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

  • Thanks Eric for your insightful words and connection of the histories of exiled (and enslaved) Jews and the many Africans who were captured and sold into slavery, not just in America. I live and serve in Haiti where even though the people gained their independence (from France) through a slave uprising and revolution, the common citizen is in many ways still in bondage to their own government leaders. Today I will go and sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land with my Haitian brothers and sisters who are free on some ways and yet enslaved in others. Bless God for songs of praise and hope.

  • John vanStaalduinen says:

    Thank you for this insite, I will share with our group, The King’s Men of Song, as we sing several spirituals in our repertoire.

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