Wary Beginnings: The Jubilee Singers Take the Stage
In 1871, a mere 8 years after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, the Fisk Jubilee Singers, embarked on a pilgrimage that would introduce the slave hymn to a vast number whites in America for the first time. This would possibly be their first real lesson in African American culture, at the least a lesson whose content and scope were not wholly determined by the same forces that aligned themselves to construct blacks as beasts of burden fit for the American system of chattel slavery. For that reason primarily, according to noted researcher and historian Eileen Southern, this was not a decision to be made lightly for the American public had not yet heard the religious music of the slaves and had given no indication that it was ready to hear it. Not only might they not be ready to hear it, they may be flat out hostile to it.
Why, one might ask would whites in America manifest a particular hostility towards this music?
Here we have a group of young former slaves living at a time where their freedom was tenuous at best, fragile, conscripted and not well protected for the most part and living in a society that frankly was anticipating failure for them and not much else. The nature of the relationship between blacks and whites in America was defined within the context of slavery on the one hand and segregation and disenfranchisement on the other. At this point every moment was a moment for these newly freed blacks to make a substantial mark on the souls of their countrymen who for the most part regarded them as a problem race with not much to offer to American civilization other than entertainment, a good laugh and cheap labor. While popular culture, on the one hand, was consistently flooded with images of sambos, jemimas, gigaboos and jezebels other segments of society were hard at work in the continued construction of African American personhood. Bernice Johnson Reagon writes of the intellectual defamation afoot in “scientific” circles in If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me:
Part of the work of fashioning an African-American people who were not equal to white Americans in the post slavery period was carried out by Intellectuals. Leading scholars claiming an objective, scientific method of research and analysis studied our work and ways of living and declared us incapable of original creativity. To think them overtly malicious or sloppy researchers would miss the point. It would not make clear the power of operating from a cultural context driven by racism and proclaiming oneself capable of being beyond one's cultural boundaries. For these scholars, the originality of a genre of new sacred songs created by slaves was unthinkable. (1)
Not only was this prejudice rampant in scholarly circles, it permeated America’s religious institutions as well. Even though, there has always been a small “remnant” of white Christians willing to work for justice and equality, White churches have pretty much gone along with the program of white America, whatever it was-slavery, segregation, discrimination, with few notable exceptions. You might even say that the dominant religion of America was not the religion of Jesus but that the “creed of white supremacy...was [its] confession of faith.” (2) So much so that it bent the scriptures to it’s very will in service to the false gods of racism and oppression. It was in this fiery crucible that the Spiritual was born.
Singing what Andrew Ward, in his book Dark Midnight When I Rise, called the “secret soul music of their ancestors,” they set out on a creative trajectory that would inevitably transform world musical culture. Under the direction of George L. White, a young white teacher at the newly established Fisk University, they set out on a journey singing songs that “conquered till they sang across the land and across the sea, before Queen and Kaiser, in Scotland and Ireland, Holland and Switzerland.” (3)
1. Reagon, Bernice Johnson. If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2001. pg. 78
2. Albert Truesdale quoted in Darden, Bob. People Get Ready: A New History of Gospel Music. New York: Continuum, 2004. Print. pg. 6
3. Dubois, WEB, Souls of Black Folks