‘Delicate, heavy history’ informs the ‘pain’ heard in the swells, seen in the embodiment of those singing
March 7, 2022
Whenever the Rev. Carlton Johnson talks about hymns from the heart of the Black church, he feels a responsibility to carry on the tradition of his ancestors. For their hymns are, as W.E.B. Du Bois observed, “the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing born on American soil.”
Formed in a Black Baptist congregation, Johnson sang his first solo when he was 5. A choir director by high school, he spent decades leading music ministry around the country. At a recent Presbyterian Association of Musicians Town Hall Forum, Johnson discussed an article he wrote for Call to Worship, a quarterly journal published by the Office of Theology and Worship in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).
Johnson began the conversation on his article “Stretching Out: Hymn Interpretation in the Black Church,” with what he called “some delicate and heavy history.” In the late 1400s in Ghana, the Elmina Castle was originally built as a trading post and a house for missionaries. Johnson said there was a church in the castle compound that held Christian etchings, including a cross. In nearby adjacent buildings were enslaved and imprisoned African American people, where young boys and girls and older men and women were abused. Before or after the abuse, abusers would go to worship in the church.
“Such irony that both occurred in the same place,” Johnson said. “Keep in mind when we’re doing discipleship that today’s young people now know these two things were going on simultaneously in the compound.”
The coordinator for Vital Congregations in the PC(USA) said it was assumed the Africans had no knowledge. Even though they had Christianity (as well as the two other Abrahamic religions) long before their enslavement, their spiritual practices were considered pagan. Soon the singing, dancing and drumming by the enslaved became punishable offenses — and could actually get them killed.
But when they arrived in the U.S. to work the plantations in the South, they were told to sing their songs.
“My ancestors had to think, ‘How can we sing in such a strange land?’” Johnson said. “They were now being taught about Christianity in a way they didn’t understand. How could this be the high God?”
The enslaved Africans who were remembering their homeland compared their singing to Israelite songs in Babylon as they remembered Zion (Psalm 137). Because of this, Johnson said, there is more to the music in the Black church than just “jazzing it up” by adding beats and rhythms.
“What you really hear in the sounds and the ebbs and flows of the music [in the Black church] is pain,” he said. “Cries of desperation and pleas for help.”
Sometimes that pain is in the lyrics. But Johnson said you can really hear it the swells — and in the emphasis on particular parts of the song. You can also see it in the embodiment of those who are singing, or performing, for the Black congregation. Using the under-documented “old meter” form, the cadence of the hymn was slowed almost to a dirge.
Following the Great Awakening, the enslaved African people were taken to church to participate in worship services. But it is noteworthy, Johnson writes, that this invitation had nothing to do with the welfare of the enslaved. Citing Riggins R. Earl Jr.’s work “Dark Symbols, Obscure Signs: God, Self, and Community in the Slave World,” Johnson said slave owners were taught by the church to imagine these enslaved people as “bodiless souls.” It was acceptable to get as much work as possible out of their bodies, but it was their “Christian duty” to make their souls fit for heaven. But some would not even believe the soul of an African could abide in the same heaven as a white person. So, they built balconies in many of their churches to keep the enslaved as far away from the white people as possible. These balconies, Johnson said, became known as “N-Heaven.”
Paul Seebeck, Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Hymns from the heart of the Black church
Let us join in prayer for:
Let us pray
Lord, you make no distinction between rich and poor, between those who give bread and those who receive it. You know that they all need you, your love, your presence. Thank you for reminding us that we are all your children. Amen.