Tag Archives: Solomon Northrup

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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Twelve Years a Slave

Jim Thomas’s Spirituals Choir is in winter hibernation mode, so there’s been nothing musical to report. Last night, though, I went to see Twelve Years a Slave, a film based on the memoir of Solomon Northrup, a free black man from upstate New York who was abducted and sold into slavery in 1841.

This is the world the slave songs came from. Call-and-response work songs help the slaves maintain momentum as they pick cotton or cut cane. “Roll, Jordan, Roll” is heard after a dead slave is laid to rest.

Others have raved about all aspects of the film: the superb performances, the deft direction, the story itself, and more. Twelve Years a Slave is in the running for the Oscars and other major movie awards, as well it should be. What struck me hardest as I watched, and now as I recollect, was the visceral feeling that there’s no escape. Not for Solomon, not for the viewer. Certainly not for the other slaves, but not for the white plantation owners and their hirelings either. This is a closed system. It magnifies the human failings of the slave owners — jealousy, anger, hypocrisy, pride — and turns them lethal. It turns the smallest act of empathy or trust into something heroic.

No escape. Solomon Northrup’s old world might as well be on another planet. He might as well have died and gone to hell. Only the title of the film tells you that years are passing — that, and the fact that when Solomon does manage to return from the dead, he finds his daughter married and himself a grandfather. The film doesn’t touch on the drama that must have been playing up north, as Solomon’s family realized he’d disappeared, presumably tried to find him, and gradually became reconciled to their loss. Only in myth can the living attempt to bring their loved ones out of hell. The results are rarely happy.

I could go on, and on and on. Suffice it to say that Twelve Years a Slave will be on my mind next spring when the Spirituals Choir reunites for its 10th season.

If you’re on the Vineyard, Twelve Years a Slave will be screened at the M.V. Film Center three times this coming weekend: Friday, Nov. 15, at 4 p.m.; Saturday, Nov. 16, at 7:30; and Sunday, Nov. 17, at 4. Elsewhere, the film is being released more widely and shouldn’t be hard to find, at least in urban areas. Solomon Northrup’s memoir is in print and available from the usual online outlets. And for an insightful take on slave narratives in general and this one in particular, see Eric Herschthal’s blog on the New York Times website.

— Susanna J. Sturgis

 

 

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