I want to help you take some first steps toward reconciliation through listening. We’ll examine the connection between lament, spirituals, and racial harmony. The spirituals provide rich history and important truths. In the fivefold vision for conversations about racial reconciliation (love, listen, lament, learn, and leverage), if we don’t begin with the right posture, no amount of information or discussion will help.
Before we look at the spirituals, let’s consider three ways laments help us listen, especially when it comes to racial reconciliation.
Vocalize the Pain
Lament provides Christians with a common language to talk about pain. Since over a third of the Psalms feature this minor-key song, it gives us permission to talk to God—either in private or together—about the pain we feel. When it comes to loaded subjects like racism or ethnic tension, too often believers fall into the familiar ditches of denial or despair. Some people think that talking about racial reconciliation only makes things worse. They believe “everything’s fine.” There are others who are weary and feel hopeless. To borrow from Fannie Lou Hamer, a civil rights leader in the 1960s, they are “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” But lament offers a way to vocalize frustration and sorrow that is not only helpful but also biblical.
Lament provides a place to go with the pain of racism and prejudice. It’s a prayer path for talking to God and to one another about the brokenness of the world. Lament gives us a way to vocalize the complicated emotions connected to racial reconciliation.
Empathize with Others
Lament creates a language to “weep with those who weep.” It helps us express sorrow with one another. Lament gives us a voice of empathy. It communicates that while we may not understand, we are willing to walk alongside a brother or sister in pain. Rather than immediately moving into fix-it mode, praying a lament prayer with a brother or sister grieving over a racial incident or an injustice helps you enter into his or her sadness or frustration.
Too often we are silent. I’ve made that mistake many times. Out of fear of saying the wrong thing or asking an unintentionally hurtful question, we don’t say anything. And the silence is deafening. Whether in a personal meeting over coffee or a pastoral prayer during a Sunday service, I’ve seen the power of empathy that comes from prayers of lament. Talking to God together communicates “I care.”
Memorialize the Lessons
The book of Lamentations serves as a memorial—a way to mark a painful moment in the past with a view toward not forgetting the lessons. Laments help us remember. As we listen to these pain-filled prayers, we are reminded that history tends to repeat itself if we don’t learn from the past.
The spirituals, as a form of lament, invite us to feel the trauma of the African American experience and ponder the implications. Although they aren’t necessarily Christian prayers per se (some are), they are historical and cultural expressions of the pain and trauma of racial injustice.
African American spirituals serve as memorials.
Lament gives us a language to vocalize, empathize, and memorialize any kind of pain, but especially when it’s associated with racial injustice. Regardless of your ethnicity, listening to the spirituals can be instructive. For majority-culture Christians, this provides an opportunity to step outside our culture, demonstrate humility, and learn from this rich tradition. For minority Christians, this could serve as an encouragement regarding the contributions of African American songwriters and theologians. You may also find yourself resonating with the unique pain and sorrow expressed in these historic, cultural laments.
The spirituals tune our hearts to the pain in our nation’s history. They help us feel and understand the struggle under the horror of slavery and segregation. They show us the value of listening to lament.
Spirituals help us in the journey toward reconciliation.
The History of the Spirituals
The first slave ship arrived on the coast of North America on August 20, 1619, a year before the Pilgrims arrived on the Mayflower. A Dutch frigate docked a few miles south of Jamestown, Virginia, with twenty Africans.1Over the next three centuries, the trafficking of Africans over the Atlantic totaled more than ten million people.2An act of the US Congress banned the trans-Atlantic slave trade in 1808. However, over the next fifty years, slavery dramatically increased through “domestic slave trade” within the boundary of the United States. The number of slaves tripled until they constituted nearly a third of the southern population.3
While physical demands and horrific treatment marked the life of slaves, they also faced enormous challenges in the practice of their faith. Plantation owners often refused to allow slaves to gather for worship, fearing they might be emboldened to seek freedom. As a result, slaves met secretly. They would gather in “hush arbors”—covert worship services in the woods or swamps.4The singing at these gatherings often featured a “call and response” pattern, with a degree of improvisation and enthusiasm. Jemar Tisby writes, “The precariousness of their existence led Christian slaves to cry out to God with a passion and exuberance that has become characteristic of many black church traditions.”5Their secret churches, sometimes called the “invisible institution,” created a refuge from the dehumanizing conditions.
The spirituals emerged in this brutal context. They expressed emotions for both the individual and the entire community. Albert Raboteau puts it this way: “One person’s sorrow or joy became everyone’s through song. Singing the spirituals was therefore both an intensely personal and vividly communal experience in which an individual received consolation for sorrow and gained a heightening joy because his experience was shared.”6 Spirituals became the language of suffering and hope for those who lived in exile.
The abolition of slavery in 1863 did not silence the spirituals. These songs became the expression of African Americans living with segregation, burning crosses, Jim Crow laws, sharecropping, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynchings.
The spirituals also played a unifying role in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s. Songs like “We Shall Overcome” have their roots in this rich tradition. The spirituals provide a window into the history and the heartache of African Americans.
Spirituals as Cultural Lament
The spirituals are expressions of contemporary lament. While these sorrow songs were not biblically inspired, they are instructive. George Faithful, in his journal article titled “Recovering the Theology of the Negro Spirituals,” says, “Few genres of song have been as significant historically, literarily, musically, and theologically as the ‘Negro spiritual.’ For their original singers, they were songs of praise, lamentation, and resistance.”7
Every spiritual expresses a unique perspective on the hardship of slavery and segregation. Spirituals highlight the pain. One of the most heartfelt is “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.” It vocalizes the haunting loneliness of slavery. Bruno Chenu writes, “Because the separation of families was such a dramatic, though common, experience, the slave was an orphan with an unfathomable sadness of heart. The slave no longer had brothers, sisters, father, or mother.”8
Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,
a long ways from home, a long ways from home.9
The hymnal of the Evangelical Covenant Church uses this spiritual as a responsive refrain to the reading of Psalm 88, a lament psalm that expresses a deep sense of abandonment:
O Lord, God of my salvation,
I cry out day and night before you.
Let my prayer come before you;
incline your ear to my cry!
For my soul is full of troubles,
and my life draws near to Sheol.
I am counted among those who go down to the pit;
I am a man who has no strength. (Ps. 88:1–4)
Lament psalms and the spirituals have parallel themes. Abandonment, loneliness, and a desperate need for God’s help characterize portions of Psalms 12 and 94:
Save, O Lord, for the godly one is gone;
for the faithful have vanished from among the children of man. (Ps. 12:1)
Who rises up for me against the wicked?
Who stands up for me against evildoers?
If the Lord had not been my help,
my soul would soon have lived in the land of silence. . . .
When the cares of my heart are many,
your consolations cheer my soul. (Ps. 94:16–17, 19)
The spirituals provided suffering people with a personalized voice to strengthen their faith. They refused to hide the “repercussions of living through an unbearable drama,” says Chenu.10 One such song is “Master Going to Sell us Tomorrow?” I’ve visited the location in Montgomery, Alabama, where slaves were auctioned. Today it’s a fountain at the center of a roundabout, a beautiful landmark that hides the depravity of the human trafficking in the past. But hear the words of this spiritual and feel the horror of people trafficked as property and family relationships viewed as disposable:
Mother, is master going to sell us tomorrow?
Yes, yes, yes!
O, watch and pray!
Going to sell us down in Georgia?
Yes, yes, yes!
O, watch and pray!
I must lebe [leave] you,
Yes, yes, yes! O, watch and pray!
Mother, I’ll meet you in Heaven.
Yes, my child!
O, watch and pray!11
Stop and consider what you just read. Imagine the generational trauma of children ripped from parents’ arms, husbands estranged from their wives, fathers isolated from sons, and mothers disconnected from daughters. Harriet Jacobs, an escaped slave, recounts one horrifying moment:
On one of these sale days, I saw a mother lead seven children to the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave-trader, and their mother was bought by a man in her own town. Before night her children were all far away. She begged the trader to tell her where he intended to take them; this he refused to do. How could he, when he knew he would sell them, one by one, where he could command the highest price? I met that mother in the street, and her wild haggard face lives today in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish, and exclaimed, “Gone! All gone! Why don’t God kill me?” I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances like this were of a daily, yea, of hourly occurrence.12
The spirituals help us feel this trauma. They personalize suffering. As we listen, we can empathize in ways unknown before.
- Bruno Chenu, The Trouble I’ve Seen: The Big Book of Negro Spirituals (alley Forge, PA: Judson, 2003), 7.
- Jemar Tisby, The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American Church’s Complicity in Racism (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2019), 29.
- History.com editors, “Slavery in America,” History (website), November 12, 2009, https:// www.history.com/topics/black-history/slavery.
- Tisby, The Color of Compromise, 52.
- Tisby, The Color of Compromise, 52.
- Albert J. Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 246.
- George Faithful, “Recovering the Theology of the Negro Spiritual,” Credo ut Intelligam, December 13, 2007, https://theologyjournal.wordpress.com/2007/12/13/recovering-the-theology -of-the-negro-spirituals/.
- Chenu, The Trouble I’ve Seen, 118.
- “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child,” Hymnary (website), accessed April 26, 2019, https://hymnary.org/text/sometimes_i_feel_like_a_motherless_child.
- Chenu, The Trouble I’ve Seen, 116.
- Quoted in Chenu, The Trouble I’ve Seen, 114.
- Harriet Jacobs [Linda Brent, pseud.], Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (Fairford, UK: Echo Library Classics, 2011), 15.