Negro Spirituals in "White" Churches
Date: May 12, 2011
Today the reverend at my church sent me the following message. I was, and still am, quite bothered by it, but I realize that this is a great teachable moment for the leadership and congregation at my church. In order to respond to the reverend's communication without coming from an emotional place, I am allowing myself 24 hours before I begin to formulate my response. However, I would like your (the choralnet community's) opinion on the matter:
Good afternoon. I hope you are enjoying this brief sunny respite from the rain.
I want to run a thought by you and get some feedback. It is stimulated by recent conversations I have had with choir members.
On your schedule of Anthems to sing, there is one called, "I Got a Home In-a Dat Rock". I am not familiar with the anthem, so I am not making any judgment about the quality of the song. My concern is about how it might be received.
I think we talked about this once before. I get very concerned when I hear white choirs sing the old Negro Spirituals. Some of them are beautiful tunes with wonderful sentiments, but it doesn't come off as authentic when performed by a white choir, and often is not well done because they don't get the cadence right.
And the world has changed. When Al Jolson made "the Jazz Singer" (1927), it was edgy. By today's standards, a white man putting on the "blackface" is considered racist. At ____________ [other church the rev had been assosicate pastor for] we had a wonderful baritone in the choir who loved to sing selections from "Porgy & Bess". But it just never came off as authentic because he was white; again, it wasn't his heritage he was singing.
And from my brief time living in ________[the city in which we reside], I haven't heard the African-American community crying out for "dem good ol' days" of plantation living, where happy slaves sang the songs of Zion while working for "de massa".
But perhaps you have different thoughts, different experiences. I would like to hear your thoughts on music and race, and why you think it is appropriate for ________'s [our church name here] predominantly-white choir to sing "I Got a Home In-a Dat Rock". Is this your plan for transitioning the music at ________ [church name] from a mostly-white style to a more African-American style? Is there a special Sunday that it seems to fit? Does it go along with a chosen scripture text for the morning? How would a young black family from our neighborhood receive such an offering?
Don't misunderstand. This email is not to tell you what to do. I truly want to hear your thoughts. Who knows. Maybe I have been thinking wrong about this all this time.
I hope you'll respond. Thanks.
(insert rev's name here)
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