Singing the History

Most of the singers in the Spirituals Choir are white. I’m one of them. People sometimes remark on this, and I’d bet good money that many more notice but are too nervous to say anything out loud.

When asked, and sometimes even when not asked, why I sing in the choir, I say that the songs are beautiful and moving and that by singing them I can begin to feel my way into the lives of those who created them. No, I will never understand what it’s like to be totally at the mercy of another person, to be sold away from family and friends, to take the huge risk of boarding the Underground Railroad and beginning the long trek north.

But the spirituals make those experiences real to me in a new way. It goes deeper than history books, deeper even than the first-person accounts by enslaved people who managed not only to escape but to get their stories into print, People like Frederick Douglass; Linda Brent (Harriet Ann Jacobs), author of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; Solomon Northrup, whose Twelve Years a Slave was adapted into a movie some 160 years after its publication; and all the men and women whose narratives were collected by the Federal Writers Project during the New Deal.

It’s a little like being in a play. In rehearsals you work your way into the character, then in performance you are that character for an hour or two. When you go back to being yourself, traces of the character often remain in your memory and maybe even in your heart.

So at the beginning of the very long Fourth of July weekend Margaret Jordan’s Washington Post op-ed caught my eye: “Too Many Americans Still Don’t See Black History as Their Own.” Jordan, a D.C. native, writes about the long-vanished family history she sees as she walks around the city. A member of the Montpelier Foundation, she writes about a new exhibition at Montpelier, James Madison’s home, “which tells the story of what life was like as a slave on the plantation of our fourth president.” And she writes this:

In the retelling of U.S. history, there is an incomplete and frequently inaccurate story of African American history. At best, it has been the auxiliary exhibit, with slavery a disconnected footnote in the larger tome of our nation’s story. Descendants such as me, who were lucky to grow up knowing the names of their ancestors, know these stories. But most Americans have not been taught to see and embrace African American history as part of their history as Americans. Indeed, in the telling of American history, we have failed to fully grapple with the reality of slavery and its lasting hold on society. This has consequences.

That’s it. That’s why I sing the spirituals and why I believe Americans of all colors and ethnicities can and should embrace them as part of our history, difficult as it can be. In self-defense the mind recoils from thinking too hard about slavery, like the finger recoils from a hot burner. But the spirituals offer a way into the history, and a way of integrating slavery into the history of the nation.

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The Spirituals Choir’s annual full-length presentation at Union Chapel, Oak Bluffs, will take place on Saturday, July 22, at 7:30. Most of our performances, at libraries, schools, and houses of worship, are free. The tickets for the Union Chapel presentation are $15 and support the work of the U.S. Slave Song Project, of which the choir is a part. (Children under 12 get in free.) Lavert Stuart will once again be our guest organist.

 

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Two Sides of July Fourth

On July 5, 1852, abolitionist, activist, and former slave Frederick Douglass gave a speech in Rochester, New York: “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?” Douglass died in 1895, but his speech lives on. On Martha’s Vineyard there are usually two community readings of the speech each year. One takes place at the Federated Church in Edgartown on July 3, the other at the Inkwell beach in Oak Bluffs on the 4th.

This was my second year reading at the Inkwell. That’s us, this year’s readers, in the photo. I’m kneeling in front with the purple hat mostly covering my face. Gail, also part of the Spirituals Choir, is second from right in the front row.

I can’t speak or listen to Douglass’s words without hearing in my mind the slave songs we sing in the Spirituals Choir. This year what I heard most vividly was Douglass’s evocation of the “human flesh jobbers, armed with pistol, whip, and bowie-knife, driving a company of a hundred men, women, and children, from the Potomac to the slave market at New Orleans. These wretched people are to be sold singly, or in lots, to suit purchasers. They are food for the cotton-field and the deadly sugar-mill. Mark the sad procession, as it moves wearily along, and the inhuman wretch who drives them. Hear his savage yells and his blood-curdling oaths, as he hurries on his affrighted captives! There, see the old man with locks thinned and gray. Cast one glance, if you please, upon that young mother, whose shoulders are bare to the scorching sun, her briny tears falling on the brow of the babe in her arms. See, too, that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn!”

I can’t stop thinking of “that girl of thirteen, weeping, yes! weeping, as she thinks of the mother from whom she has been torn.” One of the songs in our repertoire this summer is “Mother, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?” In it a girl — I’m sure it’s a girl — sings that line, and the choir answers: “Yes, yes, yes . . . O watch and pray!” Then the girl sings “Gwine to sell us down in Georgia?” And again the answer is “Yes, yes, yes . . .”

The way Dr. Thelma Johnson, member of the Spirituals Choir, sings those lines will break your heart.

So do Frederick Douglass’s passionate words, evoking the slave who can’t celebrate liberty on the Fourth of July because he is not free.

The slave songs keep the slaves’ experiences alive. That’s why I sing them. Frederick Douglass’s words do likewise. That’s why we read them every year on the Fourth of July.

 

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This Saturday in West Tisbury

The West Tisbury library has a lovely program room, and we’ll be presenting there this Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m. On State Road in the center of town, across from Alley’s General Store.

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A Surprise Guest in Edgartown

Our presentation at the Edgartown library this past Saturday went very well. Both the library and its sunny, spacious program room were new when we sang there last year. The acoustics were as wonderful as we remembered, and so was the hospitality. After the presentation choir and audience chatted over lemonade and coffee, strawberries, chocolate cake, and cookies.

At some point I noticed a mature gentleman moving about the room taking pictures.The zoom-equipped camera around his neck identified him as a photographer — not for him the smartphones or point-and-shoots of most of us. During the Q&A, he identified himself as Daniel Williams. For 30 years he has been documenting Emancipation celebrations, not only in the United States but abroad as well. A book is in the works.

Everyone knows about the Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863, which freed the slaves in the rebelling Southern states — but not those in slaveholding states that had never left the Union, and not those in the parts of the Confederacy that were by then under Union control.

Emancipation came gradually: the Wikipedia article on the subject notes that “Slaves in the District of Columbia were freed on April 16, 1862,” and on June 19 Congress passed legislation abolishing slavery in current and future U.S. territories. For various reasons, news of the Emancipation Proclamation did not reach Texas until mid-June of 1865, an occasion that is now widely celebrated as Juneteenth. Legal slavery did not officially end in the U.S. until the 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

So there are several emancipation milestones to celebrate. Two songs in the Spirituals Choir’s 2017 celebrate Emancipation: “Rise! Shine! For the Light Is a-Coming” and “Great Day.”

It was a thrill to meet Mr. Williams and learn of his work, and needless to say, we look forward to hearing more.

Accompanist Phil Dietterich on the left, director Jim Thomas in blue

Some of the choir

 

 

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Saturday @ Edgartown Library

Here’s the flyer: this Saturday, June 24, 3 p.m. at the Edgartown library. We sang there a year ago when the program room was brand-new — the acoustics are wonderful. Come hear us, and bring your friends. This is a program for all ages.

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Our Busy June Continues

Last Friday, the Spirituals Choir had a rare opportunity to perform for seventh-graders in the Tisbury School library. Our presentations are ideal for school groups, but unfortunately our seasonal schedule does not sync well with the school year. We start rehearsing in late April and are ready for prime time by mid-June — at which time the school year is almost at an end.

So we welcomed this chance, albeit with some good-natured grumbling about having to be in place and ready to sing by 8:30 in the morning. There are generally a few young people at each of our public presentations, but what it would be like singing for an audience comprised almost entirely of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds?

No worries there: the students were very attentive, and they asked good questions at the end. Director Jim Thomas encourages questions and comments from all our audiences. I asked a history teacher if the students had studied the Civil War. He said that he brought it up when opportunities arose but that it wasn’t a formal part of the curriculum until freshman year of high school.

One spiritual on the program was “Mama, Is Massa Gwine to Sell Us?” a poignant song powerfully sung by choir member Dr. Thelma Johnson. The choir responds with “Yes, yes, yes . . . O watch and pray.”  In slavery times it was probably sung by children younger than those in our audience last Friday.

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The Vineyard’s libraries provide some of our favorite venues. Yesterday afternoon we returned to the Chilmark library, where as usual all seats in the program room were occupied and the library staff had to keep bringing in more. Our next presentation is at the Edgartown library this Saturday, June 24, 3 p.m.

Jim Thomas and some of the choir at the Chilmark library

Phil Dietterich at the keyboard

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Debut at the Anchors

Jim Thomas and the Spirituals Choir gave our first presentation of the 2017 season yesterday at the Anchors, the Edgartown senior center. Pardon me for thinking it might have been our most powerful debut ever! We have a great repertoire this year, and though we only did a portion of it at this particular event, what we did was strong.

There are no photos. My bad. As usual I was running late, and I forgot to grab my camera. The parking gods smiled on me, though: I found a parking space on Water Street and got to the Anchors on time.

This coming Friday morning we’ll be presenting for seventh and eighth graders at the Tisbury School. Students of all ages almost always respond strongly to our program, but unfortunately our performance season is getting under way just as the school year ends. We’re excited to be able to sing for these young people this year. (True, the non-morning people among us are grumbling a bit at the start time: 8:30 a.m.) I promise to remember my camera this time.

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