Black people’s experience is that the denial of their human rights often begins with the undermining of the sense of their humanness. When they fight back, it is rarely with secular ideas of humanness. Rather, as a very religious people, it is often with an appeal to God. This can be seen, for example, in the Negro Spirituals which black slaves in America sang about their oppression and their longing for freedom. Today, African Christians in Britain, who are feeling the sharp pain of racism, are doing much the same. They are fighting for survival in a foreign land through the songs they sing in their churches. This is what we will explore in this essay, that is, how Christian songs are being used by black people in their fight for their rights and for survival.
Negro Spirituals and the right to be free
The words of Negro Spirituals often have different layers of meaning because the slaves had to hide their feelings and plans from the slave masters. For example, the Spiritual, “Steal away to Jesus” was used as a secret signal for a religious meeting1. Crossing “River Jordan” into “Canaan” could mean passing through “death” into “eternal rest” or crossing the “geographical boundary” to the North (i.e. the northern states of USA) or to Canada. Similarly, many of the theological themes in the Spirituals also have a socio-political meaning. Take for example, the theme of heaven which occurs in the popular Spiritual, “Swing low, sweet chariot” (“But still my soul feels heavenward bound”), the Spiritual “Climb up, ye little children” (“Now is your chance for heaven”) and the Spiritual “Judgment day is rolling round” which contains many references to heaven (e.g. There’s a big camp-meeting in the heaven). Benjamin Mays sees this constant reference to heaven as a longing for the spiritual home after death which made the blacks docile and submissive:
They adhere to the compensatory pattern because they are ideas that enable Negroes to endure hardship, suffer pain, and withstand maladjustment, but they do not necessarily motivate them to strive to eliminate the source of the ills they suffer.2 But Miles Fisher rightly pointed out that “heaven” also referred to those earthly places that blacks regarded as lands of freedom,3 such as Canada and the North of the United States.4 This view is supported by James Cone who points out that in the same song “Swing low, sweet chariot”, when the slaves sang, “I looked over Jordan and what did I see, coming to carry me home” they were looking over the Ohio River.5 And when they sang, “A band of angels coming after me” they were referring to the freed slaves who came secretly to free them.6 The theme of “Satan” is another example. At one level, Satan was the “spiritual” demon behind the structure of slavery7. At another, more “physical”, level Satan was the one opposing black political freedom, namely, the slave holders, slave traders, drivers and overseers8. The key point for the slaves was that Satan was a present reality and was against their liberation. Satan was “present in the dehumanizing forces that contribute to slavery.”
Some Spirituals were very clear about the real life situation they were referring to. For example:
No more auction block for me
No more, no more
No more auction block for me
Many thousands gone9 And it goes on, “no more peck o’corn for me”, “no more pint o’salt for me”, “no more mistress call for me” and “no more driver’s lash for me”. The slaves’ rejection of the things associated with their physical slavery, the auction block where they were resold time and time, the ceaseless request of the slavemaster’s wife and the frequent lashing by the slavedriver, is clear.
In the Spirituals God is omnipotent10 and sovereign over heaven and earth11. This means that the trouble the slaves faced at the moment was temporary, because God will overcome at the last. God was also a just being so “slavery contradicts God”12. Because of this contradiction, “God will liberate black people”13 Many Spirituals capture this sense that their liberation is down to God’s power; for example, the Spiritual “Ezekiel saw the wheel” has the line, “And the big wheel runs by the grace of God”. Jesus is portrayed in the same way, as a liberator whose death on the cross overcame all the things that plague the slave - death, Satan and sin and, thereby, paved the way for the slave’s freedom. For them, Christian freedom is not only or mainly about being absolved of the consequences of one’s own sins, but rather more about being delivered from the social, economic and political forces holding them hostage and making them less human.
African Christians in Britain and the Strive to Survive
The songs of African Churches in Britain, like the Negro Spirituals, come from people who had not long left the shores of Africa and who are living in an alien land facing issues of socio-political oppression. Two examples of such an African church are Church of the Lord (Aladura) and Redeemed Christian Fellowship, both in London. A common theme in their songs is the omnipotence of God. A song used widely among African Independent Churches in Britain goes:
Leader: I have a very big God
All Who is always by my side
Leader A very big God
All By my side, by my side
A “very big God”, according to one member of these churches, was a God that can “dismantle any kind of situation... no matter how big or how bad a situation is, our big God is able to put it right.” Another said, “That means a God that can do all things; a God that is All In All; a big God with whom everything is possible”. And she went on to relate it to specific situations
… the God that can raise up the dead; the God that can make the impossible possible; he made somebody who has not got a womb to have a child; I have heard and seen this in testimonies.14 Other songs on the same theme include, “What a mighty God we serve” and “He is able, abundantly able”. Such a God never fails, as is captured in another song “I have a God who never fails.” As one of the church members put it, “A god that fails is a god that cannot deliver his own people.” The deliverance being referred to here could be physical, social or economic, as this remark from the respondent indicates:
When I entered the UK, I said to God, prayerfully, that I need something formal to do, you know, as a business… and eventually he gave me something doing, and I feel happy doing it now. Meanwhile, look around you and find people who are yet to find something to do and how to go about their life.
God’s help also prompts many song of gratitude, such as, “What shall I say unto the Lord, all I have to say is thank you Lord.” In this way, Africans express their fundamental belief that it is God that can guarantee their survival.
The understanding of Jesus in the African Church songs very much follows from the understanding of God. There are similar glorifying songs, such as, “Be glorified…Jesus, Jesus, be thou glorified” and songs of gratitude, such as, “We are saying thank you Jesus, thank you my Lord.” As one church member put it, “if I am a representative of my father that means I am equally my father… we have that notion that Jesus is a true representative of his Father.” Unlike in the West where Christian salvation is conceived mainly in spiritual terms, Africans maintain a strong real-life dimension to salvation. For example, one song says
Leader: Jesus has give’ me victory
All: I will lift him higher
Leader: My redeemer
All: I will lift him higher
The “victory” Jesus has given, like the deliverance God gives is one that covers all areas of life over which the singer has needs. Another one goes, “What kind of man is Jesus, Alleluia?” and goes on to answer the question, “he makes the lame to walk, Alleluia” and “He makes the blind to see, Alleluia” and “He makes the deaf to hear, Alleluia”. And one could add, “he helps us survive in a foreign land, Alleluia”. Just as in Latin America, the point of Christianity is not seen in the narrow, “spiritual” sense of salvation of “my soul” but rather more broadly, to do with deliverance from oppression. Salvation is “passing from less human conditions to more human conditions” and is about liberating human beings from social slavery. However, unlike the Negro Spirituals, explicit evidence of a political dimension in African songs is still weak, in spite of the fact that Africans in Britain (with many other minority ethnic people) continue to face racial discrimination in employment, schools and housing, and continue to face intimidation by the Police. Rather than the consciousness of being a people, many African Christians are still primarily focused on their own prosperity. As Mark Sturge has pointed out regarding some black Christians in Britain, in their desire to share in economic prosperity, they can ignore “capitalism’s discriminating structures, economic policies and political bias in favour of wealth”.15 Of course, most of these churches are less than twenty years old in this country. It is also a little unfair to compare their experience with those of the slaves, since slavery in comparison to racism was much more defined, concrete, and harsh. Even so, one hopes a stronger political consciousness will develop alongside the concern for economic survival in the near future.
The social, political and economic oppression African slaves faced in America and which many Africans face today in Britain has the tendency to dehumanise. In that sense, what is at stake for black people in those two contexts is not simply their rights but their very humanity. A sure way of denying a person their rights is by the sense of their humanness being first undermined. If one is not human, one cannot have human rights. Black people respond to by trusting totally in God to overthrow the dehumanising forces that are massed against them. The God who made them human, they believe, would not let them be made into anything less.
This is reflected in many Negro Spirituals and in many songs used by African Churches in Britain. These songs share a concern for the practical needs of people and the preparedness to involve God in everyday life. For example, songs from both traditions emphasize the omnipotence of God, because this underlines God’s ability to change their situation. The Negro Spirituals also reflect this understanding of the Christian goal in its treatment of such themes as heaven and Satan. In both cases, the songs facilitate an encounter with God who nourishes them for the ongoing fight.
Notes / References 1 A.J. Rabotau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South,
Oxford University Press, 2004, p213.
2 Mays, quoted in J. Cone The Spirituals and the Blues, New York: Orbis Books, 1972, p18.
7 Howard Odum and Guy Johnson, quoted in Cone, Spirituals and Blues, p72.
8 John Lovell, quoted in Cone, Spirituals and Blues, p72.
9 For this and other Spirituals see A Sandlands, A Hundred and Twenty Negro
Spirituals, Morija: Morija Sesuto Book Depot, 1981.
10 W. Coleman, Tribal Talk, University Part: Pennsylvania State University, 2000,
p128; also Mays quoted in Cone, Spirituals and Blues, p17.
11 Mays quoted in Cone, Spirituals and Blues, p17.
12 Cone, Spirituals and Blues, p65.
14 Interview of a member of Redeemed Christian Fellowship in 2005.
15 G. Gutierrez, in Essential Writings (ed.) Nickoloff, J., New York: Orbis Books,
17 M. Sturge, Look What the Lord has Done, Bletchley: Scripture Union, 2005, p139.
1 A J Rabotau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, p213.
2 Mays, quoted in J Cone The Spirituals and the Blues New York: Orbis Books, 1972,
3 Fisher, quoted in Cone, Spiritual and Blues, p80.
4 Cone, Spiritual and Blues, p80.
5 Ibid, p81.
7 Howard Odum and Guy Johnson quoted in Cone, Spiritual and Blues, p72.
8 John Lovell quoted in Cone, Spiritual and Blues, 72.
9 For this ans other Spirituals see A Sandlands, A Hundred and Twenty Negro Spirituals, Morija: Morija Sesuto Book Depot, 1981.
10 W Coleman, Tribal Talk, University Part: Pennsylvania State University, 2000, p128; also Mays quoted in Cone, Spirituals and Blues, p17.
11 May’s quoted in Cone, Spiritual and Blues, p17.
12 Cone, Spiritual and Blues, p65.
14 Interview of a member of Redeemed Christian Fellowship in 2005.
G Gutierrez, in Essential Writings (ed.) Nickoloff, J New York: Orbis Books, 1996, p26-27.
15 M Sturge Look What the Lord has Done Bletchley: Scripture Union, 2005, 139.