Uncomfortable words: James Baldwin on “Negro spirituals”

James BaldwinI’ve been reading quite a bit of James Baldwin recently, in particular reading again his novel Giovanni’s Room, and his slim, two-essay volume The Fire Next Time.

I also re-watched the speech (followed by Q&A) that Baldwin gave in London in 1969, and which was released as the documentary Baldwin’s N*gg*r (as this blog’s “house style” is going to insist on writing it):

The main reason for watching this again was to find the sections where Baldwin discusses African-American spirituals, as this talk was the first time I’d come across the idea that these songs had been a code for the very practical freedom from slavery provided by escaping the plantations (such as through the Underground Railroad).

At one point in his talk, Baldwin talks of the impact it can have:

…if I discover that those songs the darkies sang and sing were not just the innocent expressions of a primitive people, but extremely subtle, difficult, dangerous and tragic expressions of what it felt like to be in chains… [~6m 15s]

He expands on this in the Q&A, first when he is explaining why advocates of black liberation were having to hold white liberals at arm’s length. This was partly due to the need to rely on shared experiences which would need explaining to white people:

At some moments you don’t have time to explain to somebody else. That’s how we got the spiritual Steal Away. It’s not about stealing away to Jesus! [Laughter.] It’s a timetable. It’s somebody splittin’. He’s leaving, he’s stealing away. You can’t always explain that. [~32m 20s]

This gulf in experience has been unintentionally highlighted earlier in the talk, when Baldwin describes how so many African-Americans came to have a racially mixed ancestry: “We know what happened, and we know who had the whip. And it was not my grandmother who raped anybody” – and the audience laughs (see from around 11m 30s).

A little further on, Baldwin replies to a question about African-American attitudes towards Christianity as follows (bear in mind this is 1969):

The bulk of the American Negro population is Christian – or, at least, it thinks it is. Now you have to… when one begins to examine it, you discover that there are some very crucial differences between white Christianity and black Christianity. […] And this is partly because […] the church has operated in the life of the American Negro, who was once a black African slave, as his only form, the only place where he was relatively free. And it is also the place in which he was able to act out, to sing out, to dance out, his pride, and his terrors, and his desire for revenge. All those sermons are bloodthirsty, and they’re not talking about devils, and Samson and Delilah, or any of those things: they’re talking about the master. And the song say it’s about Samson, and the master thought it was supposed to be about Samson, only now he’s beginning to think it was about something else. The man says, the slave says, if I had my way – if I had my way – I’d tear this building down. That sounds like a very happy, innocent church song. It’s lethal. [~34m]

Ever since I heard this talk, I’ve found the idea of singing these spirituals in churches of mostly white congregants rather painful. It feels like an act of cultural appropriation (probably because it is).

Baldwin is rather harsher (though also funny) in The Fire Next Time, when he discusses the experience of oppression that lies behind the emotional complexity of gospel, jazz and the blues:

White Americans seem to feel that happy songs are happy and sad songs are sad, and that, God help us, is exactly the way most white Americans sing them – sounding, in both cases, so helplessly, defencelessly fatuous that one dare not speculate on the temperature of the deep freeze from which issue their brave and sexless little voices. Only people who have been “down the line”, as the song puts it, know what this music is about. (The Fire Next Time, p.42)


3 thoughts on “Uncomfortable words: James Baldwin on “Negro spirituals””

  1. You might enjoy Albert J. Raboteau’s book “Slave Religion: The ‘Invisible Institution’ in the Antebellum South.” One thing that came across clearly was how this all worked out differently in different generations. It’s too easy to picture one period as standing for the whole. Baldwin’s account of spirituals is plausible, but I doubt universal. And the question is, what would it take for him to know it was or wasn’t universal? And if we decide that only a black person can tell us these meanings, which one do we choose? (I got an earful once when a black Republican woman went off on Obama not knowing who he was, and how he was attending Jeremiah Wright’s church as a sociological experiment to try to find an identity he didn’t have.) Anyway, still valuable. I read Giovanni’s Room some time back on your recommendation and thought it was well done.

    1. It is not just plausible that negro spirituals were encoded communication among the captives people in the institution of slavery in the United States of America, but it is a matter of historical fact. As a descendant of the people ensnared in the institution of slavery, historical accounts passed down from generation to generation attest to this fact (by oral traditions and familial teachings). This fact is also fortified through the pathology of Black American English that uses mainstream American English word in a different ways and unique context (as a result of Black American’s indigenous tongues being taken from us, the captive people use the parameters of the language force on them to speak as freely as possible in the presence of those whom would kill them if they knew the true context of their conversations or communication. Another example the encoded form of BAE is “the dozens.”) The ideology of most “Americans” are that there is no such thing as Black American English and what ever Blacks speak is both improper and totally simple enough to be comprehend by all American English speakers (especially if you listen to Black music, it just slang, which goes to the fact of negro spiritual interpretations). The fact that Black American English Languages are not recognize is the reason you can interject doubt about the fact of the narration by James Baldwin. The doubt inserted by your research and not your experience, yields to the implication and inference that it is appropriate for Europeans to sing Negro Spirituals and transform the context and meaning of these cultural device so to fit their agendas at will. It can be argued that it is abominable for descendant of Europeans in American (slaver owners and non-slave owners) to participate in the iconoclastic form of African peoples’ in captives tool of rebellion.

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