When plans were made for the Spirituals Choir to sing at the Unitarian Universalist church in Canton, Massachusetts, on Sunday, June 21 — today — no one knew that we would be singing four days after a white supremacist gunman opened fire at a Bible study at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, and killed nine African Americans in cold, cold blood.
Where to start, where to start?
If the gunman is “mentally ill,” his mental illness is shared, to some degree, by millions of Americans. They believe that African Americans are somehow less than other Americans — white Americans. That Africans were enslaved because they were not fit to be free.
The songs we sing say otherwise. As we sang today, I thought of something that Jim Thomas, founder of the U.S. Slave Song Project and director of the choir, likes to point out: that none of the slave songs speak of hatred or vengeance. Resistance and escape, yes, but not vengeance.
After crossing Vineyard Sound on the 7 a.m. ferry from Vineyard Haven, we boarded our chartered bus in Woods Hole.
By 9:15 we were in Canton.
We were welcomed by Martha Mezger, long a member of the choir, now a member of the Canton UU congregation.
The service focused on the slave songs, and the experience of those who sang them. The opening hymn was “We’re Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table,” which is in this year’s repertoire.
Singing these songs, it’s impossible not to think about what the original singers were thinking when they sang them.
The Rev. Beverly “Buffy” Boke read Maya Angelou’s “Caged Bird”:
Please, click the link above and read the whole thing.
“Wasn’t That a Wide River” — about the crossing of the Atlantic.
“We Shall Walk Through the Valley” — possibly the first peace song sung on this continent.
“I Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray” — about being so far behind on the long cotton rows that one couldn’t hear one’s fellows, or maybe about despair in general.
“As I Went Down in the Valley to Pray” — the slaves practiced their own religion, often with imagery from the Christian Bible, but they went out of the white folk’s sight to do it.
“Fare You Well” — in which slaves sold away from the plantation take leave of their fellows.
“Done Made My Vow to the Lord” — the vow of slaves preparing to leave on the Underground Railroad, that they will never turn back or betray their fellows.
“Rise, Shine, for the Light Is a-Coming” — in which the slaves prepare for emancipation.
“There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land” — the Promised Land in the slave songs is freedom.
“Great Day” — one of the last spirituals, about emancipation.
After the service we joined the congregation for a truly impressive potluck lunch in the parish hall. We had to leave all too early to catch our ferry home.
Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir will give a free presentation at the Chilmark library on Wednesday, June 24, at 5 p.m. Or come to our full-length performance next Saturday, June 27, at 7 p.m., Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Tickets are $15 at the door and benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project. Children under 12 get in free.