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. In ordinary times, the choir performs four signature concerts at Palm Sunday, Spring, Fall, and Christmas, plus other special events. Currently on singing hiatus due to Covid, the Choir is still 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
An abbreviated version of "Hush" was performed by the Chalice Choir as an introit on January 15, 2023.
During the period prior to Emancipation, slaves often stole away to places where they could sing and worship that were referred to as “Hush Harbors” -- thickly forested areas where they could remain private and undetected by their owners. Here, they would create their own sacred spaces and rituals, which combined modern Christianity with their own African and Caribbean traditions. Slaves also utilized Hush Harbors as meeting spots where they hatched plans for freedom. So, it was probably not unusual for “Hush” to be code for when a meeting might take place.
I Got a Robe
Performedby the Chalice Choir
During slavery, direct expressions of protest were of course, dangerous. So, in singing, slaves often went thru considerable lengths to disguise the true meaning of their lyrics. In “I Got a Robe”, there is overt protest about basic necessities, like shoes and clothing, that were often rare in slave quarters. The song boldly proclaims, “ALL God’s children got shoes” (and robes, and harps and crowns) that they will eventually have in heaven. But in the wonderful line, “everybody talking 'bout heaven, ain’t going there”, the slaves (who refer to themselves in this spiritual as “All God’s children”) emphasize the hypocrisy of the slave owner, who claims to be a Christian by attending church every morning, talking about Jesus and Heaven – but then retuning to the plantation to run a very “un-heavenly” and often, immoral enterprise. In subtle, somewhat veiled language here, the slave turns the tables on his oppressor, and reverses the power hierarchy.