A Charge to Keep

Preacher: Susan DeSelms
Date: October 31, 2021

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Scripture: Isaiah 58:6, 9-12, Romans 13:7-8

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Negro Spiritual Royalties Initiative

by Susan DeSelms, Minister of Music

Presented to the United Parish in Brookline on October 31, 2021


We’re talking about Negro Spirituals today and a new social justice initiative that we at the United Parish are starting. First - let’s get the name out of the way.  The term Negro Spirituals refers to the enormous body of folk songs created collectively by enslaved Africans in America and their descendants. In Black communities, that is the preferred term for this body of music. In the predominantly white community, they are more typically called African American Spirituals, or simply Spirituals. Other terms used for them are Jubilee Songs (named after the Jubilee Singers of Fisk University)  Sorrow Songs (A term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois, the first Black American to earn a PhD from Harvard and one of the founders of the NAACP). In his collection of essays called The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois described the predicament of Black Americans as one of "double consciousness": 


"One ever feels his twoness, — an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, who dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder."


 More recently, some are calling the Spirituals  “Black Liturgical Music.” Words matter, and while using the word Negro, even in this context, gives me discomfort, I can acknowledge that the discomfort is mine, and comes from the shame I feel as a white person of unearned privilege. I therefore defer to the Black community’s preferrences, respectfully using the term “Negro Spiritual” shortened to “Spiritual” from time to time, and welcome the feelings of discomfort. They remind me that there is still work to be done. 


Unlike other hymns and worship music, Negro Spirituals were not published until after the names of their creators were long forgotten, if they were ever even known.  The​y are ​both ​witness to the horrors of slavery and racism, ​and witness​ ​to a ​merciful​, faithful​ and just Christianity​ which we still aspire to live into today. Even before the abolition of slavery, these songs had started making their way into the collective memory of all Americans. Since then, they have become the source of literally countless musical arrangements and compositions published and sold to churches, schools, community choruses, orchestras, bands, and all manner of musical organizations. The Negro Spiritual is also the intellectual property of​ the enslaved Africans in America and their descendents.


In an excerpt from O Black and Unknown Bards, written by Black American poet, lawyer, civil rights leader, and author of Lift Every Voice and Sing,  James Weldon Johnson asks - 


O black and unknown bards of long ago,

How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?

How, in your darkness, did you come to know

The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?


Who first from midst his bonds lifted his eyes?

Who first from out the still watch, lone and long,

Feeling the ancient faith of prophets rise

Within his dark-kept soul, burst into song?


Heart of what slave poured out such melody

As “Steal away to Jesus”? On its strains

His spirit must have nightly floated free,

Though still about his hands he felt his chains.


What merely living clod, what captive thing,

Could up toward God through all its darkness grope,

And find within its deadened heart to sing

These songs of sorrow, love and faith, and hope?


How did it catch that subtle undertone,

That note in music heard not with the ears?

How sound the elusive reed so seldom blown,

Which stirs the soul or melts the heart to tears.


Not that great German master in his dream

Of harmonies that thundered amongst the stars

At the creation, ever heard a theme

Nobler than “Go down, Moses.” Mark its bars

O black slave singers, gone, forgot, unfamed,

You—you alone, of all the long, long line

Of those who’ve sung untaught, unknown, unnamed,

Have stretched out upward, seeking the divine.


You sang far better than you knew; the songs

That for your listeners’ hungry hearts sufficed

Still live,—but more than this to you belongs:

You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ


This poem sums up so many important aspects of the Negro Spirituals: they are undeniably brilliant change, capturing over and over again the Holy Grail of music that happens when true artistry is matched by depth of feeling. The feelings they communicate are universal. Few of us will ever have to experience the level of suffering that enslaved Black people endured throughout their lives, but most of us have experienced suffering. Also, anguish is only one of the many emotions expressed in these songs: the Negro Spiritual reflects the totality of the human experience. The result is that these songs are almost irresistible to the human spirit. 


Frederick Douglass, an escaped slave who wrote extensively about his experiences, describes them like this: 


    “When on their way, the slaves would make the dense old woods, for miles around,         reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest         sadness. 


    They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune...     I have     sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to         impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole         volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.”


It is so hard to understand what caused the more abusive slaveholders (of which there were many) to be so hate-filled.  How were their hearts not softened by the undeniable humanity expressed by the people they claimed superiority over? How did they not hear God’s voice imploring them to turn back? It’s hard not to notice the eerily familiar hypocrisy running rampant in slaveholding culture.  Who, again, are the ones with violent and evil tendencies? Who, exactly, are the ones who don’t feel pain or empathy? The devil here has not even bothered to put on a disguise. 


For the last few years in particular, I have struggled with how to appropriately, and respectfully use Negro Spirituals in our worship services at the United Parish.  They are some of the most powerful, beautiful, and expressive music that I know.  My parents grew up in Birmingham AL. My sister and I grew up in Nashville, then Knoxville TN.   My father’s choirs always sang arrangements of Spirituals, and my mother regularly  assigned the H. T. Burleigh arrangements of Negro Spirituals to her  classical voice students.  I grew up regarding the Negro Spiritual as high art,  knowing that these songs are both important and tragic.  I never considered the possibility that as a white person, I shouldn’t be singing them. 


But now, white America is waking up (once again) to the challenges and injustices faced by people of color in the US, as is evidenced by the fact that we have a sign hanging on the outside of our building earnestly explaining that Black Lives Matter.  We know that Negro Spirituals came from the mouths of enslaved Africans in America. What right DO we have to sing them? What if we misinterpret them, or culturally appropriate them, or what if we are just too white to sing them? 


These songs have been so deeply incorporated into the canon of folk music in America that most of us don’t even know which ones are Negro Spirituals and which ones aren’t. 


Let’s test our knowledge - I’ll start , you all pick up where I leave off. 


This Little Light of mine 

Swing Low, Sweet Chariot

I’ve Got Peace Like a River

We Shall Overcome 

Lord, I want to be a Christian 

I’m gonna lay down my burdens… 

Go Tell it On the Mountain…. 

Ezekiel Saw the Wheel… 

It’s Me… it’s ME oh Lord, Standing in the Need of Prayer 

Let Us Break Bread Together

Nobody Knows … the Trouble I’ve Seen

When Israel was in Egypt’s Land… “let my people go” 

He’s Got the whole world in his hands

Do Lord, O Do Lord, O Do Remember Me 

Wade in the Water… 

We Are Climbing Jacob’s Ladder…. 

Gimme That Old Time Religion 

Rock a My Soul 

Mary Had a Baby

As I went Down in the River to Pray

Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burnin’ 

I’m Gonna Sit at the Welcome Table - 

In that great Gettin’ Up Morning 

My God is a Rock in a Weary Land

Ride On King Jesus

Soon and Very Soon, 

Were You There when they… 

Great Day! Great Day the Righteous Marching


How many of you knew that all of these songs are Negro Spirituals?  (The answer turned out to be no one. Not one person was aware that all of the songs listed were Negro Spirituals.) 


A quick history review: 


In 1619 - the first Africans were brought to America to become slaves, beginning 244 years of legalized slavery on U. S. soil.

150 years later, in 1772 -  John Newton, an English slave trader turned abolitionist and clergyman, wrote Amazing Grace. This song would later become one of the iconic anthems in the Black community, reaching its true artistic glory in the voice of Mahalia Jackson.  


1775 - Revolutionary War began 


1808 - Slave Trading was  abolished. Meanwhile, slavery remained legal in the US for another 55 years. 


1857 -  The Dred Scott Ruling determined that the US Constitution was not “intended” to protect people of African descent.


1860 - The Republican party declared the slave trade and slavery itself to be “a crime against humanity” as part of their presidential campaign. It is the first example of the term being used in this way.  Nothing came of it, but the words were said. 


1863 -  The Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union, but not all slaves by any stretch. 


1865 - The 13th Amendment finally abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in the US after 264 years.  Oh… EXCEPT when it was used as punishment for a crime. Then it was okay. 


1867-  Three northern abolitionists compiled and published Slave Songs of the United States, that they collected from emancipated slaves. It is worth noting that even by 1867, the first 8 songs in the  collection were commonly sung in both White and Black churches. 


1871 - The Fisk University Jubilee Singers, made up of emancipated former slaves, brought Spirituals to the  concert hall for the first time, raising more than $150k (worth $3.5 million today), for Fisk University.  Other college choirs followed suit, and the Jubilee repertoire made its way into their concerts, and into Vaudeville, Minstrel Shows, and as always, church. 


1929 Harry Thacker Burleigh, among the first acclaimed Black American composers, published Jubilee Songs of the United States - Negro Spirituals arranged in classical form, with piano accompaniment, making spirituals available to solo concert singers as art songs for the first time.


1936 - Works Progress Administration, part of the New Deal, started an initiative to collect testimony from former slaves. They collected over 2,000 first hand accounts from just 2% of the former slaves still living at the time


Experts estimate that there are at least 1,000, and possibly up to 6,000, Negro Spirituals in existence coming exclusively from the period of legalized slavery.  By all accounts, they  were entirely improvised, and were “honed and refined” according to the tastes and opinions of the group.  They were passed around from one plantation to another, taking on new forms and variations as they went. 


Historical accounts also indicate that slaveholders fully recognized the strong musical tendencies of their African slaves, noting that singing was incorporated into nearly every aspect of life.  Many slave owners encouraged singing, and paid more for the best song leaders, because it allowed their slaves to work harder for much longer. Other slave owners forbade their slaves from singing and even praying, with no objective other than to break the spirits of their workers. 


For the enslaved African Americans, singing was an act of self preservation made even more powerful by the fact that it was almost always done collectively. This allowed for community building which was especially important because the African slaves very often did not share a common language, and families were split apart.  Music became the common language. 


Singing was a source of strength and comfort, and mental distraction from the cruelties of daily life.  As an act of artistic expression, singing reinforced a sense of self worth. Spirituals were utterances of the heart, expressing whatever needed expressing. Sadness, grief, joy, exhaustion, heartache, humor, courage, compassion, anger, frustration, fear, but most importantly, hope. Singing was (and is) a form of prayer, and these prayers reveal an absolute faith in God to make things right someday. 


In order to keep singing Negro Spirituals, we need to address the debt we still owe to the enslaved Black people who created them. Black Americans have been last in line to receive recognition and financial compensation for the extraordinary contributions they’ve made to American culture.  Aren’t we, as progressive Christians, the hands and feet of Jesus?  


Today, we are starting an ongoing initiative of collecting "royalties" ​ for the Negro Spirituals we sing in worship. Whenever we sing them, we will collect a special offering that will support the development of Black musicians. For the next two years at minimum, we have chosen Hamilton-Garrett Center for Music and Arts, in Roxbury as the recipient of the royalties that we collect. Our guest, and their executive director, Germai Groover-Flores will talk to us about their program in a little while.  For now, imagine if churches, schools, and music publishing companies started to pay even a small amount in royalties to organizations that empower African-American artists and musicians? If I had to guess, I would imagine that the Negro Spirituals have been arranged, published, and recorded millions of times for and by marching bands, handbell choirs, church choirs, college choirs, recording artists,  community choruses, solo instrumentalists and singers, and orchestras. They all frequently incorporate Spirituals into their repertoire. 


 For the individual, the cost of participating in this practice would be minor, but the cumulative financial outcome could be huge if more people got involved.  Little by little, this practice could  become an instrument of a larger quest for restorative justice in which we all participate. 


Would that change things? Maybe. 


In her book - Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone,  Jacqui Lewis  says 


“Keep your eyes on all that's good and beautiful and possible in the world. Because the stories we tell create the people we become.”  


YES to that, I say!  Love is held hostage by secrets and all the shame that comes along with them. Let’s start being honest with each other and ourselves, and ask what Love calls us to do, and what Black Americans need us to do.  With God’s blessing, may we truly become healers of the breach.  

A Congregational Pledge

                  Today, we acknowledge the history and significance of the Negro Spiritual

and its artistic and spiritual worth in the life of our community today. 


With great respect and deep gratitude 

for the tremendous musical contributions 

made to American music by Black people, 

we offer our thanks and praise to God 

for the creators of the Negro Spiritual and their descendents. 


We pledge that each time we sing Negro Spirituals in our worship: 


We will sing and hear them with holy reverence and open hearts; 

We will honor the unnamed composers who created them; 

And we will pay royalties to organizations 

promoting the advancement of Black artists and musicians in America, 

starting with Hamilton-Garrett Center for Music and Arts. 


We understand that the debt owed to Black musicians and artists

 can never be fully repaid.