“I think of God, and I moan;
I meditate, and my spirit faints.”
“I commune with my heart in the night;
I meditate and search my spirit.”
Psalms 77:3-6
I
The Psalmist did not specify the difficulty that pressed him, but from the rest of what he wrote it seems rather clear that the problem also involved many of his people, perhaps all of them.
He longed for God’s help during a difficult, disastrous, and prolonged period of time. So prolonged was the time, and so difficult the situation, that even thought about why God had not intervened brought a burden to the man’s questioning mind: thus that awesome sentence, “I think of God, and I moan.”
National woes mingled with his personal burdens, and the Psalmist reacted in desperation. Sleepless, his eyes red from prolonged vigil as he waited for God to answer, he passed the night communing with his own heart.
Mitchell Dahood’s rendering makes the rest of the text even more vivid: “Through the night I play the lyre, with my heart I commune that my spirit might be healed.”1
There are those times of inward struggle when music is our best release and our readiest resource. Thomas Carlyle dared to suggest that music is our deepest reality, saying, “All deep things are Song. It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls. See deep enough,” he continued, “and you see musically.”2
The depth experience he shared with his troubled people prodded the Psalmist to sing. An experience of trouble prodded Paul and Silas to sing while waiting in that dank, dark jail cell at Philippi. A depth encounter with trouble stirred Jesus to sing some of the Hallel Psalms with his frightened disciples on that awesome night before The Day of The Cross.
All humans suffer, and all humans sing — either a song of faith or the blue notes of fate. Traverse the world, taking notice of the music of the masses, and you will come back home aware that songs are often profiles of the soul in crisis, indications, like our text, of some dark experience during which some soul communed with itself.
Such is the story behind the Negro Spirituals. Through the long night of enslavement here our forefathers and mothers played the lyre, communing with their hearts, anxious that their spirits might be healed. The Negro Spirituals are songs from the night; they are shafts of light for those who watch and wait for the expected new day.
II
Although these songs are universally known as “Spirituals,” songs with a religious character, they cannot rightly be understood or regarded until we recognize many of them as honest documents of social protest.
The Spirituals are sorrow songs; they show the yearnings and hopes of an enslaved people. The lines of these songs describe grief, distress, physical and mental anguish, unfulfilled longing, and the inexpressible pain of being slaves. A pressured history stands compressed in these songs, and in line on line there is an outcry of longing for a needed change.
Social protest is clearly evident in such lines as these:
O brothers, don’t get weary,
O brothers, don’t get weary,
O brothers, don’t get weary,
We’re waiting for the Lord.
We’ll land on Canaan’s shore,
We’ll land on Canaan’s shore,
When we land on Canaan’s shore,
We’ll meet for ever more.
Canaan meant Canada, by way of the free North, and the expected “landing” there would be by help from the Underground Railroad system. While the slavemasters thought of Canaan as Heaven, the slaves sometimes used the word as part of a distinct code whose meanings were thus hidden from all except those with ears trained to hear.
From Best Sermons 1987 (c) (Harper & Row, 1988). Reprinted by permission.
Frederick Douglass confessed this understanding of “Canaan” in one of the songs that fired his longing to set out for the free North and Canada:3
O Canaan, sweet Canaan,
I am bound for the land of Canaan.
As Douglass himself stated it: “We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.”
There are many songs of protest among the Spirituals. The black slaves both calmed their spirits and fired their zeal for freedom by their songs. If we would rightly understand the Spirituals we must begin with the truth that many of them are reactions against a sorry social condition, honest documents of social protest.
III
Over and beyond the social protest we hear in some of the Spirituals, there is a central spiritual witness these songs hold and convey. In my view, the Spirituals still rank as the highest and most original creative expression to date of the Black American religious experience.
The persistent perspective regarding God — the life-affirming attitude despite their suffering — the spirit of hope that speaks so courageously about the best as yet to come — the profound conviction that no problems nor masters have the last word where faith reigns — the deep assurance that death is only a part of life and not the end of life — the soul-embracing awareness that knowing Jesus means identity, courage, inward balance, and a saving companionship — all these are explicit religious insights and authentic biblical emphases. Thus the common designation by which we refer to these songs as Spirituals.
Max Bennett Thrasher, a Northern newspaper writer who was closely associated with Tuskegee Institute during its early years, wrote about a certain chapel service he attended here. During the course of the service, Thrasher heard Booker T. Washington call out asking anyone interested among the students to voice a new song for all the others to learn. There was a brief wait —
Then far back in the house, some single voice chants, half timidly at first, the words of a hymn which perhaps had never been heard before outside the backwoods church or cabin home where the singer learned it. The quaint, high-pitched melody rises and falls — a voice alone — until a dozen quick ears catch the theme and a dozen voices are humming an accompaniment. The second time the refrain is reached a few voices join in boldly, a hundred follow, and then a thousand, sending up into the arches of the roof such a volume of sound as one is rarely permitted to hear.3
The students at Tuskegee Institute were drilled in Spiritual singing in those days. From its beginning, this school has maintained and passed on the beautiful and expressive black songs of faith and hope. The “Singing Windows” which adorn this Chapel give their silent witness to our great heritage in song, but even in every service of worship held here that witness is also voiced in one or more of these songs.
The reason relates not only to precedent, but to purpose. The Spirituals give us music from strugglers intent to encourage strugglers. This is music of courage to bless the weak, music of faith to inspire hope. This is music of searchers who found something eternal and Someone immortal. These songs from the night are shafts of light for those who watch for a needed New Day.
IV
In one of his books about the Spirituals, Howard Thurman tells about a time when some of his generation seemed ashamed of this music, while some others recoiled from seeing these songs used by minstrels to amuse and exploited by whites to entertain. During his senior year at Morehouse College, a major incident occurred in chapel in connection with the singing of Spirituals.
In the interest of a small part of white visitors from an organization that strongly supported Morehouse, the black director of music asked one of the students to sing the first line of an announced Spiritual, and the rest of the students were to come in on the song after that, singing the body of the text. The student began his line, as directed, but the student body did not join in afterward. The student repeated his directed line, but the student body again refused to respond.
President Hope was deeply embarrassed and called for a special assembly that evening during which he soundly reprimanded the entire black student body. The response of the students to him was very simple: “We refuse to sing our songs to delight and amuse white people. The songs are ours and a part of the source of our own inspiration transmitted to us by our forefathers.”4
There is something intimate and personal about the Negro Spirituals, these songs from the night, and there is something intense and involving in them. They give us our history. They honor our heritage of hope. They witness to our faith. They nurture our self-respect.
These songs echo our theology, voice our theodicy, and mirror our souls. They make something timely and timeless available to our spirits. They help us to get through our dark nights, enabling us to meet the exigencies of our lives with faith, fortitude, and essential pride.
Notes
1. Mitchell Dahood, Psalms II: 51-100 (The Anchor Bible) (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1968), p. 223.
2. See his essay on “The Hero As a Poet,” in Heroes, Hero-Worship, and the Heroic in History, ed. by Archibald MacMechan (Boston: Ginn and Co., 1901), p. 95.
3. Max Bennett Thrasher, Tuskegee: Its Story and Its Work (Freeport, NY.: Books For Libraries Press, 1971 reprint of the 1900 publication), see p. 84.
4. Howard Thurman, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, IN.: Friends United Press, 1975), p. 6.
From Best Sermons 1987, (c) 1988 by Harper & Row Publishers. Used by permission. Available at local book stores or call (800) 638-3030.

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