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July 22 @ Union Chapel

Since our inaugural presentation at the Anchors (the Edgartown Council on Aging) in mid-June, the Spirituals Choir has sung at the Tisbury School; at the libraries in Edgartown, Chilmark, and West Tisbury; as part of the Wednesday lunch-time series at Union Chapel; and most recently at the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center.

Director Jim Thomas at Union Chapel. Photo by Lynn Christoffers.

Tomorrow night, Saturday, July 22, we return to Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, for our annual July performance. It starts at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $15. They will be available at the door and can be obtained in advance from choir members. The proceeds benefit the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. Children under 12 get in free.

The prelude, by guest organist Lavert Stuart, will begin at 7:20. It is expected to include work by Florence Price, the first black woman to graduate from the New England Conservatory of Music.

This year’s program, “Songs from the Fields,” ranges from “Wasn’t That a Wide River,” commemorating the sea voyage from Africa, to songs celebrating the approach of the Union Army during the U.S. Civil War and, finally, the “Great Day” of emancipation. In between come songs of forced separation from loved ones, songs inspired by Bible stories (“Jacob’s Ladder” and “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?”), and songs from the Underground Railroad, the network of safe houses and guides that from 1830 to 1860 helped slaves escape to the North. These include “Follow the Drinking Gourd,” whose verses provide an oral map for the journey.

Spirituals are songs sung by African slaves in the U.S. between 1619 and 1865. When former slaves performed these songs after Emancipation, they were often asked to remain seated, lest they tower over their white audiences and intimidate them. Thus the choir sings sitting down and with only percussion accompaniment. Mr. Thomas explains how the songs evolved and the various purposes they served for their singers. His powerful baritone leads the choir, which is made up of Vineyard summer and year-round residents.

Mr. Thomas founded and directs the U.S. Slave Song Project, which is dedicated to educating the public about the slave songs. The Spirituals Choir brings these songs to life in their performances.

Lavert Stuart is the organist and choir director at Cleveland’s Antioch Baptist Church. A graduate of the New England Conservatory of Music, he also helped develop Boston’s Black Heritage Trail. In 2010 the Boston City Council honored him for “45 years of providing spiritual leadership through music ministry, for providing community service in the Cities of Boston and Cleveland, and for his significant commitment to developing interest and knowledge in Black history and culture.” Stuart’s keyboard repertoire ranges from traditional church music to gospel to jazz.

Jim Thomas, a seasonal Vineyard resident, is an alumnus of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, the Robert Shaw Chorale, and the Paul Hill Chorale.


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Our July

July was a busy month for Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir! Undaunted by relentless heat and humidity, the choir continued to rehearse every Wednesday. The hard work culminated in three successful performances.

July 2013 poster smOn Saturday, July 20, we sang our annual full-length concert at Union Chapel to a very appreciative audience with many new faces in it. We were joined by guest organist Lavert Stuart.

The very next morning, we were featured at the Unitarian Universalist Society’s Sunday service. The theme was “From Africa to the Underground Railroad,” and again Lavert Stuart was at the organ.

Maybe because it built on the previous evening, maybe because so many of us had the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial on our minds, maybe because the congregation and the choir raised our voices together in several songs — whatever the reasons, this was one powerful event.

To conclude the service, we all rose together to sing “America the Beautiful.” Before we finished the first verse, I was so choked up I could barely sing. Turns out the same thing was happening to a lot of other people. At the end many eyes were shining with tears and hope.

On Sunday, July 28, Della Hardman Day, we returned to East Chop Lighthouse to help celebrate the life and creative powers of the late Della Hardman. The sun was in hiding so we saw no sunset, but the rain held off and we sang well.

Our summer season is beginning to wind down, but it’s not over yet. On August 8, we’ll be singing at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging, to thank the town’s seniors for letting us rehearse in their space. Then on August 18, we’ll be part of the service at West Tisbury’s First Congregational Church. It’s our first time there, and we’ll be joined by guest soloist Elizabeth Ross.

In early September the choir will participate in a fundraiser for Windemere at the Tabernacle.


2013 UU program

Program for the July 21, 2013, UU service.


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Trayvon Martin, Race & Anthropology

Many eloquent writers are trying to come to terms with the not guilty verdicts in State of Florida v. George Zimmerman. Leith Mullings’s essay is one of the best I’ve seen. She’s the president of the American Anthropological Association. “Anthropology,” she writes, “is the discipline that fostered and nurtured ‘scientific racism,’ a world view that transforms certain perceived differences into genetically determined inequality and provides a rationale for slavery, colonialism, segregation, eugenics, and terror.”

She notes as well that “our discipline also has a significant tradition of anti-racism that emerged from the tumult leading to World War II,” and, a little later: “In the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, cultural anthropologists in particular have understood race to be a social construction—not a biological given (indeed, this is almost a mantra). Race is constructed in the sense that racial hierarchies are created at specific historical moments, frequently linked to labor exploitation, conquest, nation-building, and racialized definitions of citizenship.”

The essay contains a link to Charles Blow’s excellent New York Times op-ed, “The Whole System Failed Trayvon Martin.”

Leith Mullings is also the widow of the late Manning Marable, author of the stunning, Pulitzer Prize–winning Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention.

 — SJS


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Union Chapel

On Saturday, July 20, the Spirituals Choir returns to Union Chapel in Oak Bluffs for its annual performance: “Songs From the Field: The Mystery of Spirituals.” We’ll be joined by organist Lavert Stuart from Cleveland — and if you were there last year, you know how versatile he is. The concert starts at 7 p.m. Tickets are $15; kids under 12 get in free.

Sunday, July 21, we’ll be part of the morning service at the Unitarian Universalist Society, Main Street, Vineyard Haven. Lavert will join us there too. The service starts at 11 a.m.

July 2013 poster smOn

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