Why Reparations for Negro Spirituals?
The creators of Negro Spirituals did not receive compensation for their works, adding to the many other acts of trans-generational economic marginalization heaped on them and their communities.
Additionally, when majority-white congregations perform Spirituals, it can be an act of “cultural misappropriation.” Virtually all modern music is a blend of many cultures, but if music is wrested from members of marginalized cultures, and if the original meanings of the music are casually ignored or mocked, these blends take on a hurtful, oppressive element. Paying reparations for the performance of these Spirituals is a drop in the bucket, but it’s a start to rectifying the harm.
Paying reparations for the destructive legacy of enslavement is a controversial topic in the USA, but it shouldn’t be. We need to make whole what we, as a nation, broke. Only then can we move forward in right relationship with each other. Reparations are not charity – they are the repayment of a moral and humanitarian debt that human beings and institutions owe to one another, enabling us to move forward together.
How the Spiritual Reparations Project works
- Each time a spiritual is sung in worship, either by the congregation as a whole or by a vocal ensemble or choir, a reparations basket is placed in the sanctuary on the hymnal bookcase in the rear of the room. Attendees are free to donate to the reparations fund by placing cash or checks into this special basket, or by making a donation on the online Realm Giving Form (select “Music-Reparations” as the Fund in the dropdown field).
- Our Spirituals Reparations Team is Michael Adcock (Director of Music Ministry), Jenny Afkinich, Laurie Coltri, John Harris, Pam Henry, and Glennor Shirley selected a recipient organization in August, 2022. The recipient organization was chosen because of the close-by community that it serves, and because it can support repairing intergenerational harm to the descendants of the music’s creators and original.
- In worship, some information about the origins and original meanings of the song is made available, so that we can better respect the originators of these songs, those contemporaries who sang them, and the descendants of these persons.
- We’re also keeping an archive of the works we’ve sung. Please feel free to browse the archive, below, to learn more about this sacred music.
About the Recipient Organization
The recipient organization is the Community Concert Choir of Baltimore. The choir was founded by its director, Dr. Marco K. Merrick, in July 2010, to, in the words of its mission, “preserve and promote the sacred music tradition of the African American church.”
The choir’s website further explains the fundamental importance of Negro Spirituals this way:
The African America Church tradition cultivated a broad spectrum of music, shaping our American history and fostered faith through our ancestors’ songs. They survived the horrific middle passage of the slave trade and stamped their inimitable legacy in the souls of successive generations. Spirituals inspire each era, spanning slavery, American Revolution, Civil War, Reconstruction, Jim Crow Laws, the Civil Rights movement and the modern day, crafting musical development around the world.
In furtherance of its mission, the “choir’s repertoire spans the Negro Spiritual, Western European hymns and anthems, and the evolution of gospel music,” all of which undergird the music of the modern African American church. The choir performs four signature concerts at Palm Sunday, Spring, Fall, and Christmas, plus other special events. The Choir is also active in providing scholarships to support local Baltimore music students.
Link to the choir’s YouTube site: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCWU2d1QAPNZn9PJNu-BOZLA
You and the Spiritual Reparations Project
Your decision about whether to contribute, and how much to put in the basket, is an opportunity to ponder what you receive from hearing or singing these wonderful songs, as well as your relationship to White Supremacy culture. And it is a chance to start building your own muscle of reparative justice-making. We hope that you will not make payment for reparations a performative act of signaling your virtue. Let it instead be a private personal struggle on your spiritual journey, an act of joy and healing, and one small step in our larger collective action to dismantle a racist system.
Questions About the Project
About the image behind this page title: This image is a wall mural painted by a Cambridge, Maryland artist, Nancy Webb, for the Harriet Tubman Organization. It can be seen at the organization’s museum and education center at 424 Race Street, Cambridge, Maryland 21613. On the web, the mural is cropped to fit the space available.
Performedby the Chalice Choir
It is sometimes difficult to ascertain and confirm the exact compositional history of spirituals, as they are often passed down orally, and can manifest various alterations over time. There can even be obvious mis-information about them; one internet source referred to Great Day as a gospel piece, composed in the early 1900’s. It’s pretty clear it is a spiritual, though.
Many of the messages contained within spirituals are direct biblical references, and Great Day is no exception. The “day of the lord” or the “day of judgement” occurs multiple times in the Bible – a symbol of hope for those that are enslaved…a time when things will be “set right”. There is the element of a battle cry to this spiritual (“the righteous marching”), and we hear the text “God’s gonna build up Zion’s walls”, which references not only the city of Jerusalem, but likely also the Kingdom of God. It’s also possible this could represent, as per the book of Revelation, the final battle when the elements of good and evil have their ultimate confrontation. The simultaneous implication of more than one meaning is a feature of spirituals in general. As in many other spirituals, there is the metaphor of a chariot transporting the prophet Elijah, and hopefully those enslaved as well, up into heaven. We also hear mention of the famous Day of Jubilee – a release of all debts and emancipation from slavery.
When we have the privilege of singing timeless spirituals in our services here at UUCC, we hope to impart their message of hope, resilience and faith – a metaphor for overcoming adversity, and finding strength in the face of challenge – that possibly even in dark times, there is some glimmer of light to be found, and reason to carry on.