Sunday, August 16, 2009
Ruby Nell Sales, Guest Cultural Resource Commentator
Founder and Director of the SpiritHouse Project, a national social justice organization that brings diverse people together to work to establish racial, economic and spiritual equity.
I. In the Beginning: Prologue
When my great great grandmother died, she turned her face to the east. She let out a deep breath, and like a bird she flew away. This is the story that my great grandmother told to my grandmother who told it to my mother, who told it to me. Now I tell it to you as a reminder of our common connections, vision, hopes, defeats and victories in this strange land called America.
The tall white men with red and yellow beards captured my great great grandmother as she sat crabbing by the edge of the river that is lost in history. These strangers screamed at her in unfamiliar tongues as they put her wrist, still fat and undefined with baby flesh, into chains. These men had white faces like the powder that the medicine man put on his face when someone died. The elders in great great grandmother’s village talked about such men who came like thieves to snatch men and women and even children from the riverside of their villages. Remembering this, great great grandmother started running and screamed for Mama, Daddy, Little Brothers, and Little Sisters.
Shut up you little black wench, the strangers yelled. They knocked her down and put chains on her feet as she called out to the gods of her people. Then these strangers dragged great great grandmother away from the familiar: family, friends, village, the singing and dancing, and the stories told by wise men and women.
Never to pound grain again near the door of great mama’s house.
Never to run her hands through her sister’s hair.
Never to compare breasts with her best friend.
Never to hear the sound of her name again.
Never to be herself again, the village singer and mama’s first big child.
Never to dance and bring offerings before the gods.
The old folk in her village say that when someone steals you from your family, community, roots, and Gods, they steal your breath/source of your life and your memory. Without a memory they say you are lost to your ancestors, to your culture, to yourself; murdered.
Fear of death ran through great great grandmother. Yet, even in her grief, she knew that she could not let them kill her without her spirit. So, she closed her eyes and remembered her village and family into her mind’s eye. She held her breath and recreated a hundred images and stories all the way to the big castle, the big ship and that strange country called America.
On the big ship great great grandmother heard screams from people who were black like her. She saw hundreds of black bodies chained together, back to back, flesh to flesh. They passed a hot iron on her breasts and raped her twice in one day and yelled, “Jesus, sweet Jesus” in their joy moment. My great great grandmother was a survivor who recreated herself over and over again on the turbulent and traumatic waters of captivity, deportation and enslavement.
In this new universe of strange sounds and strange gods, my great great grandmother kept her eyes closed and intoned over and over again stories, names, songs, and practices that live and thrive in the blood, religion and culture of her people. As hard as she tried, these things receded in the distance and became distant memories. But they stayed enough with her in bits and pieces to use and to pass on.
My great great grandmother witnessed death and the miracle of rebirth/regeneration on the water and in the strange land called America. On the ship and on the land, these white strangers tried to murder African nations and peoples. But these Africans refused to die or become dehumanized. Instead they became one with each other’s suffering and captivity. Out of the tattered threads of enslavement and cultural genocide, they wove together cultural and spiritual resources that carried individuals and the collectivity through more than three hundred years of oppression. They fashioned out of the white empire status quo God a liberating God of change and justice. They created and harvested songs in a society that conspired to render them mute, invisible and unnecessary to God and society. Inside some of these songs, they flew away to become whole again. They sang:
Some glad morning when this life is over
I’ll fly away
To the home on God’s celestial shore
I’ll fly away.
When the shadow of this life is gone,
I’ll fly away
Like a bird from his prison has flown
I’ll fly away
Oh, I’ll fly away, oh glory I’ll fly away.1
The prologue provides an optic for us to view and review the devastating trauma and its consequences for black people. Unlike the captive Israelites whose oppression by Babylon finally ended and they returned home, black people have dealt with persistent oppression for 400 years. Despite many back to Africa movements, blacks never returned home as a community.
II. Resources for Black Survival
How did enslaved blacks navigate and rise above a culture of unspeakable horrors and trauma? How did we survive the efforts of white supremacists who used culture as assaultive weapons to mortally wound the community by breaking our spirits, culture, individual and collective identities? What spiritual and cultural resources did the community of enslaved blacks develop in the white culture that required them to bow down at the altar of whiteness, and to recreate themselves in the image of white supremacists who held them captive? How did they survive the attempt of white men to steal and distort history and creation so that only they live in human and Meta history? From what pools did they draw the will to resist and in the words of Brother Carlyle Fielding Stewart, “… become soul survivors who sublimate the anger and dross of white racism and oppression.”2
Twenty-first Century Revival Strategies:
1. Create a Counterculture to Survive
Katie Cannon, a descendant of enslaved blacks and a witness of the brutal days of southern apartheid, uses African American spiritual and cultural history as well as her own personal reflections to lay out the genesis of a dynamic counterculture of resistance, survival, and elasticity that blacks have created, adjusted and readjusted from generation to generation. This counterculture began with captivity and persists today. Sister Cannon speaks of this “cultural inheritance” that is still available to us today.
Despite the devastation of slavery, with its unremitting exercise of raw planter power and unconstrained coercion, my ancestors had the hours from nightfall to daybreak to foster, sustain, and transmit cultural mechanisms that enabled them to cope with such bondage. In spite of every form of institutional constraint, African American slaves were able to create another world, a counterculture within the white-defined world, complete with their own folklore, spirituals, and religious practices. These tales, songs, and prayers are the most distinctive cultural windows through which I was taught to see the nature and range of black peoples’ response to the dehumanizing pressures of slavery and plantation life. Even with cultural self-expression outlawed, my ancestors never surrendered their humanity or lost sight of a vision of freedom and justice that they believed to be their due. There was a critical difference between what whites tried to teach and what slaves actually learned. Against all odds African American slaves created a culture saturated with their own values and heavily laden with their dreams.3
Within this counterculture, spiritual and cultural resources were inextricably linked because it was within the framework of religion that the community of enslaved blacks worked out social issues. Without a doubt they believed that the kind of religion you had determined whether or not you lived in the world in right relations with God and others. Moreover, they believed that white enslavers suffered from a spiritual/religious deficiency that enabled them to “talk about heaven” but to create a social hell. This sentiment has persisted throughout black history and shows up in the 1994 Public Enemy’s song “White Heaven/Black Hell.” The song begins:
This is for the ones that do it
This is for the ones that tell
This is for the ones that’s scared
White man’s heaven is a black man’s hell
….This is for the ones on the corner
This is for the ones in the cell
This is for the ones under the ground
White man’s heaven is a black man’s hell.4
2. Use Spirituality to Revive Our People And Yourself
Spirituality is not merely an objective to be attained at the end of a long journey; it is also a creative process that has functional value and social import in which the individual simultaneously practices and personifies assumptions, attitudes, behaviors and beliefs that give direction, purpose, and vitality to life amid nefarious and debilitating circumstances or amid circumstances of life in general.5
3. Use Prayer
Carlyle Fielding Stewart says that “innovation, improvisation, and accommodation as elements of survival are all fruits of creative spirituality.”6 The prayers of black people emerge out of this paradigm of creative spirituality. The language is both poetic and laced with cultural symbols and references.
Black folk prayers permit the praying person or community to have a loving intimate relationship with God. This is a very important construction and recreation for the individual and community in a brutal world that impedes and devalues black intimacy. Within this context of intimacy, prayer creates the space to “tell God all of our troubles” in a world where blacks must often exist with subterfuge and silence in order to stay alive. On another level, to tell God your troubles is to expect a hearing. This reaffirms your worth and importance in a world where whites believe that they have the power to order and rearrange God’s creation. Black folk prayers intentionally and audaciously break through these walls of white idolatry by flipping the order of creation back to a world order where God is the creator and sustainer of community and individual life.
Prayer is a cultural resource that we have used from generation to generation to refill our spiritual tanks as we move through avenues of oppression, terrorism, and religious assault. Black traditional prayer always begins with the acknowledgment of God’s awesome power that is greater than the power of rulers as well as an audacious reaffirmation that despite the claims of rulers to be the source and architect of our lives and death it is God who wakes us up, puts breath in our bodies, and gives us use of our limbs and multiplication of our tongues. This is a direct challenge to white authority.
Within the prayer tradition, we retreated to private prayer closets or prayed in public at church, public meetings, mass meetings, or demonstrations during the Civil Rights Movement. Here is a Movement prayer from a preacher in Albany, Georgia:
We feel much akin to those who went out in the olden days two by two. We will march around those jailhouse walls that symbolize segregation. We will walk unto them like Joshua, until the walls come tumbling down. Take care of us. Take care of the police. Take care of Chief Pritchett. Take care of the mayor and the city council. We pray that as they see a powerful and peaceful people they will be moved. Consecrate dear God, this whole community.7
4. Conversion Will Revive Us
Since this moment on the lectionary calendar concerns Revival, how can we not talk about conversion? Yes, we have recently come to think of revivals as three day church services during which great preaching and singing occur. However, in the not too distant past, revivals were a time when one talked of persons getting converted. Conversion was an open door to human transformation for blacks in a society that insisted on entrapping us in a longstanding history of oppression. It allowed us to go through a process and come out more fully human and claimed by God. Essentially, it broke the power of white supremacist oppressors to claim blacks as their own to do with us as they wished. Being owned by God infused black people with the courage to step beyond confined spaces and to do what was in our hearts and minds. Being claimed by God reordered the universe for black people and made us an essential and participating part of God’s creation. So life altering and deeply felt was the born again or conversion experience for black people that it was a community ritual where older blacks would recapitulate for the community the date and time that God claimed their lives. Conversion was the good news that” you could not keep to yourself.” They spoke about it as “leaving the world behind.” If we think about the subtext of the words, it means that the world loses the power to seduce and hold us in a culture that defies God’s call to righteousness.
III. Black Folk God Talk
In many ways much of the language of black folk prayer can be found in black folk theology or God talk. The language of God talk comes out of Scripture and personal and collective encounters with God and the world. The words document who God has been with us as individuals and as a community. In black folk God talk, God is the “lily of the valley,” the “bright and morning star,” a “shelter in a raging storm,” and a “way out of no way.” God is a just God who smites the enemies of justice; a way maker and a tie breaker; a doctor in our sick room; and mother to the motherless. God is the captain of the ship. God is the beginning and end. Within this talk God is able. God is a never leave you alone God and a God who has all power.
Black folk God talk at its most substantive has social meaning and context. It worships a God that lives and acts in human history to bring about justice and a beloved community. This God is the God that released Daniel from the Lion’s den. God is the same God that brought us a long way out of the bowels of enslavement to the land of freedom. God is the same God that touched my grandmother’s life on a Thursday night and “set her feet on higher ground.”
At its best, black folk God talk speaks about who God is for the individual and who God is for the community. Moreover, black folk God talk verifies and encourages individual and corporate responsibility and action. Black folk God talk is dynamic and movement bound. It creates a hospitable and nurturing environment that enables individuals and communities to break through the walls of histories and cultures that entrap and chain us. Brother James Cone says that theology cannot be separated from the community’s experience and condition. Black folk God talk must lift us out of victimization and objectification to “somebodyness.” It reaffirms that God is on the side of the poor and the oppressed.
IV. Womanist Theology Can Revive Us
In our scripture lesson, Isaiah 40:18 asks about the image of God. “To whom then will you liken God, or what likeness compares with him?” Womanist theology expands talk about God to include women and our lives. It humanizes black theology and moves it away from a male centered God talk where black men dominate talk about God. Additionally, this type of God talk frees God from the constraints of maleness. Womanist theology unleashes black women’s voices in pulpits, seminaries and other religious venues and media. Brother James Cone in analyzing weaknesses in his book, A Black Theology of Liberation admits that:
The most glaring limitation was my failure to be receptive to the problem of sexism in the black community …. Contrary to what black men say (especially preachers), sexism is not merely a problem for white women. Rather, it is a problem of the human condition. It destroys the family and society, and makes it impossible for persons to create a society defined according to God’s intentions for humanity. Any black male theologian or preacher who ignores sexism as a central problem in our church and society (as important as racism, because they are interconnected) is just as guilty of distorting the gospel as is a white male theologian who does the same with racism. If we black male theologians do not take seriously the need to incorporate in our theology a critique of sexist practices in the black community, then we have no right to complain when white theologians snub black theology.8
The time is long past for the church to continue to subjugate the voices and talents of women the way that whites subjugated blacks. We should know better and we must do better. This will take a collective revival of the minds of men and women.
The black church can experience a revival of Godly power to transform our communities and the world by remembering the endurance of our ancestors, through creating a counterculture of survival, through spirituality, prayer, conversion that leads to action, God talk that makes everybody somebody, and by letting the voices of its majority participants—women—be heard.
1. One of the "harvested gospel songs" and a staple in black gospel repertoire is “I’ll Fly Away,” composed by country music songwriter Albert Brumby in 1929, published by the Hartford Music Company in Hartford Arkansas in 1932, and first recorded by the Chuck Wagon Gang in 1939.
2. Stewart, Carlyle Fielding. Soul Survivors: An African American Spirituality. Louisville, KY: Westminister John Knox Press 1997. p. 3.
3. Cannon, Katie. Katie’s Canon: Womanism And the Soul of the Black Community. New York, NY: Continuum, 1995. p. 33.
4. “White Heaven/Black Hell.” Hampton, Nixon, Ridenhour, Bridges, and Public Enemy. Muse Sick-N-Hour Mess Age. New York, NY. Def Jam Records, 1994.
5. Stewart, Carlyle Fielding. Black Spirituality and Black Consciousness: Soul Force, Culture, and Freedom in the African-American Experience. Trenton, NJ: Africa World Press, 1999
6. Ibid. p. 18.
7. Washington, James M. Ed. Conversations with God: Two Centuries of Prayers by African Americans. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994. p. 48.
8. Cone, James H. Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of Liberation, 1968 - 1998. Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2005. p. xvi.