On Being Tumblr

On Being Tumblr

On Being with Krista Tippett is a public radio project delving into the human side of news stories + issues. Curated + edited by senior editor Trent Gilliss.

We publish guest contributions. We edit long; we scrapbook. We do big ideas + deep meaning. We answer questions.

We've even won a couple of Webbys + a Peabody Award.
Most young people don’t look at history through the lens of hip-hop. Once they see this very powerful and profound history, they get a whole different respect for the culture.
-

Khalid el-Hakim, from the Detroit Free Press

His Black History 101 Mobile Museum educates people on African-American history and culture by displaying selections of more than 5,000 artifacts from black history in the United States. Wish I was in Dearborn last night to see some of pieces on hand…

~Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Comments
Today’s Document from the National Archives:


Robert E. Lee’s demand for the surrender of John Brown and his party, October 18, 1859

On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and his “army” of some 20  men seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West  Virginia) in preparation for his war for slave liberation. By the  morning of October 18, when Brown refused to accept the terms of this  note, marines under the command of Bvt. Col. Robert E. Lee, stormed the  building and captured Brown and the survivors of his party. The  operation that Brown envisioned as the first blow in a war against slavery was over in 36 hours.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Today’s Document from the National Archives:

Robert E. Lee’s demand for the surrender of John Brown and his party, October 18, 1859

On October 16, 1859, abolitionist John Brown and his “army” of some 20 men seized the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia) in preparation for his war for slave liberation. By the morning of October 18, when Brown refused to accept the terms of this note, marines under the command of Bvt. Col. Robert E. Lee, stormed the building and captured Brown and the survivors of his party. The operation that Brown envisioned as the first blow in a war against slavery was over in 36 hours.

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Comments
Cotton Mather called them ‘the hidden ones.’ They never preached or sat in a deacon’s bench. Nor did they vote or attend Harvard. Neither, because they were virtuous women, did they question God or the magistrates. They prayed secretly, read the Bible through at least once a year, and went to hear the minister preach even when it snowed. Hoping for an eternal crown, they never asked to be remembered on earth. And they haven’t been. Well-behaved women seldom make history; against Antinomians and witches, these pious matrons have had little chance at all.
-

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, from her paper "Vertuous Women Found: New England Ministerial Literature, 1668–1735" in the 1976 spring edition of American Quarterly

Well-behaved women rarely make history.Did you know that the ubiquitous slogan contained within the quotation above doesn’t end with a period but a semicolon? That it comes from a Mormon feminist and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian?

Rather than a rally cry for bold behavior, Thatcher Ulrich was lauding the underappreciated and shining a light on the historically invisible. As part of her research into Puritan funeral services, she was pointing to the value of an academically “neglected” group of quiet, dutiful Puritans who did not get as much attention as the so-called witches of that era.

Thatcher Ulrich says it’s her religious upbringing that drives her to work among the stories of everyday experience:

"Coming from a minority religious culture that emphasizes the value of the ordinary person and the everyday life and doesn’t celebrate being rich and famous has a lot to do with my orientation historically. Mormon women have had a very colorful and controversial history and that is a lot of what has interested me."

Joanna Brooks, a scholar, journalist, and Ask Mormon Girl blogger, is another one of those smart, strong female voices. Look for our interview with her this Thursday. It’s a good one!

Photo by Hillary Stein/Flickr, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

Comments

Tiya Miles, Public Historian

by Susan Leem, associate producer

"In my family, there was an oral history about Native American heritage. And it’s one that my grandmother talked about when I was young many a time on her front porch. So when I went to graduate school I wanted to explore this, and I was at a Native American history seminar when I first learned about Native American slave-holding. So I was confronted with two different ideas, or stories, about these relationships."
Tiya Miles

The MacArthur Foundation brought this fresh voice to our attention when it announced a public historian as one of their recent “genius” grant recipients. This is a fascinating title, and a weighty responsibility. What makes a historian a “public” one? And once you hear her speak, you’ll ask, “Why aren’t there more?”

Comments
The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.
-

Thomas Jefferson, as excerpted from a letter to John Adams dated April 11, 1823

~reblogged by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Comments
Download

What Might Autism Teach Me about What It Means to Be Human

by Krista Tippett, host

Paul Collins's bookPhoto by Sharyn Morrow/Flickr, cc 2.0

The Centers for Disease Control report that 1 in 110 children in the U.S. is now diagnosed somewhere on the spectrum of autism. In other words, this is a condition that affects many lives, many families.

General reporting and publicized controversies tend to focus on the physiology and neurology of autism, or on possible causes and cures. As I’ve followed such stories, I’ve longed to understand something about the inner world of people with autism and those who love them. I’ve wanted to hear about autism in terms of spirit, intellect, and human nature. And when I discovered Paul Collins’ warm and erudite book Not Even Wrong: A Father’s Journey into the Lost History of Autism, I knew I’d found a way in.

During a routine checkup, his beloved son Morgan was diagnosed with autism at the age of two and a half. Paul then went searching for understanding in history and literature. He traced the winding process by which 20th-century physicians finally diagnosed autism after centuries in which it was conflated with very different conditions, such as schizophrenia and Down syndrome. He had previously written about eccentric characters and forgotten inventors in history, and he began to find evidence of autism in some of these figures who had already captured his attention. In his travels, he also experienced how the spectrum of autism quietly reaches into centers of contemporary invention — such as Microsoft.

Some of our programs feel like an “experience” in the making. This one did. Paul Collins and Jennifer Elder have opened my imagination about what it means to be human, as well as what it means to be autistic, without for a moment downplaying the debilitation that life with autism also entails. I had imagined this condition to be thoroughly isolating and inscrutable.

The very word “autism” comes from the Greek for “self” — autos — connoting a state of being in which a person seems quite literally to live in his or her own world. And yet Paul and Jennifer help me grasp that autism is not one thing but a spectrum on the vast continuum of human personality. Autism has deepened their understanding of disability and of intelligence, curiosity, and accomplishment.

Most thought-provoking of all, perhaps, are their stories of how life with Morgan has imparted a new generosity and respectful good humor to their dealings with each other and their families of origin. There is a documented correlation between autism and families with achievement in fields like engineering, music, mathematics, science — professions that require an aptitude for logic and a capacity for intense, solitary focus. You can read a beautiful essay by the late scientist Stephen Jay Gould about his son with autism.

Paul writes this:

"Autists are described by others — and by themselves — as aliens among humans. But there’s an irony to this, for precisely the opposite is true. They are us, and to understand them is to begin to understand what it means to be human. Think of it: a disability is usually defined in terms of what is missing. But autism is as much about what is abundant as what is missing, an overexpression of the very traits that make our species unique. Other animals are social, but only humans are capable of abstract logic. The autistic outhuman the humans, and we can scarcely recognize the result."

There is more in this hour of radio than I can evoke in these paragraphs. And if you enjoy it, I’d encourage you to listen to my original, unedited two-hour conversation with Jennifer Elder and Paul Collins. It is full of illumination and warmth, and I didn’t want it to end.

Comments
Download

How Aida Refugee Camp Got Its Name

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Kholoud Al Ajarma(photo: Trent Gilliss)

We met Kholoud Al Ajarma, a Palestinian woman who coordinates the arts and media activities for the Lajee Center, while conducting interviews within Aida refugee camp in the West Bank city of Bethlehem this past March. What a gift to meet her and take her photo, along with many others while working there.

Members of our staff all had different ideas about where she acquired her marvelous English accent; we were all wrong. But now we know. Maybe you’d like to guess? Listen to the audio clip above from this week’s show in which Kholoud tells a charming story about how Aida camp got its name. Submit a comment here, and I’ll post the answer shortly.

Comments

Did Elites Help Cultivate the Local Foods Movement?

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

When we first released "Driven by Flavor," some listeners were rankled by Dan Barber’s assertions. In the video clip above, the Blue Hill chef argues that “elites” deserve recognition for catalyzing sweeping changes in our collective food consciousness:

"It has been a movement that’s pretty much started with the people who can afford to pay for this kind of food. Do I think that’s unfortunate? I really don’t … a lot of great movements in this country, including women’s suffrage, including the civil rights movement, started with elites and ended up becoming mass movements through powerful ideas."

What do you think? Are elites the chicken or the egg here? Or is there another way of understanding how the food revolution Dan Barber is a part of became so widely embraced?

Comments
Adolph Hitler’s 1919 Letter Reveals His Anti-Semitism
by Trent Gilliss, senior editor
An eery document in the context of history. Adolph Hitler’s typewritten letter from 1919 revealing his hatred of the Jewish people was presented in New York yesterday and will go on display in Los Angeles. In the document, Hitler refers to the Jews as a “racial tuberculosis on the nation” and told Captain Karl Mayr, the officer who requested Hitler’s assessment, that the “final goal must be the removal of the Jews. To accomplish these goals, only a government of National power is capable and never a government of national weakness.”
(via cheatsheet)

Adolph Hitler’s 1919 Letter Reveals His Anti-Semitism

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

An eery document in the context of history. Adolph Hitler’s typewritten letter from 1919 revealing his hatred of the Jewish people was presented in New York yesterday and will go on display in Los Angeles. In the document, Hitler refers to the Jews as a “racial tuberculosis on the nation” and told Captain Karl Mayr, the officer who requested Hitler’s assessment, that the “final goal must be the removal of the Jews. To accomplish these goals, only a government of National power is capable and never a government of national weakness.”

(via cheatsheet)

Comments

Mavis Staples and the Grandness of Musical History (video)

by Trent Gilliss, senior editor

Who doesn’t love the remarkable and enduring Mavis Staples? And teaming up with Jeff Tweedy? Well, the Grammy voters couldn’t resist her charm either, awarding her Best Americana Album for her latest work, You Are Not Alone. Which is a perfect opportunity to share these two videos of her and Wilco front man Tweedy performing acoustic versions of both songs he composed for the album: the title track “You Are Not Alone” (above) and “Only the Lord Knows” (below).

Mavis Staples' "You Are Not Alone"Her win also gives us a chance to remember her family’s legacy in the American civil rights movement. As Dr. Vincent Harding reminds us in an upcoming show, artists like The Staples Singers (“Respect Yourself” and “I’ll Take You There”) and Curtis Mayfield created a soundtrack of hope for the movement. In the liner notes of Mavis Staples’ 2007 album We’ll Never Turn Back, she wrote this personal letter reminding us of this history and the need for positive change going forward:

"When we started our family group, The Staple Singers, we started out mostly singing in churches in the South. Pops saw Dr. Martin Luther King speak in 1963 and from there we started to broaden our musical vision beyond just gospel songs. Pops told us, "I like this man. I like his message. And if he can preach it, we can sing it." So we started to write "freedom songs," like "Why Am I Treated So Bad," "When Will We Be Paid for the Work We’ve Done," "Long Walk to DC," and many others. Like many in the civil rights movement, we drew on the spirituality and the strength from the church to help gain social justice and to try to achieve equal rights.

We became a major voice for the civil rights movement and hopefully helped to make a difference in this country. It was a difficult and dangerous time (in 1965 we spent a night in jail in West Memphis, Arkansas and I wondered if we’d ever make it out alive) but we felt we needed to stand up and be heard.

So for us, and for many in the civil rights movement, we looked to the church for inner strength and to help make positive changes. And that seems to be missing today. Here it is, 2007, and there are still so many problems and social injustices in the world. Well, I tell you ¬ we need a change now more than ever, and I’m turning to the church again for strength.

With this record, I hope to get across the same feeling, the same spirit and the same message as we did with the Staple Singers — and to hopefully continue to make positive changes. We’ve got to keep pushing to make the world a better place. Things are better but we’re not where we need to be and we’ll never turn back. 99 and 1/2 just won’t do!”

A good way to kick off your Friday.

Comments

Angélique Kidjo’s Songs that Inspire the Struggle

by Nancy Rosenbaum, producer

"The songs tried to encourage us not simply to to be reactors, but to indicate our own initiative and our own power."

In our interview yesterday morning, Vincent Harding spoke about the galvanizing power of song during the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 60s. He also lamented that today’s “hip-hop young people” have not produced a soundtrack for their generation that can express the “great need and desire for a better world.”

But, for many African youth, Angelique KidjoAngélique Kidjo is helping create this soundtrack. The 50-year-old, Grammy winner is inspiring this rising generation by revisiting music that emerged from the American civil rights movement, namely that of Curtis Mayfield, whose music shaped and was shaped by the struggles of this time.

On her most recent album, Kidjo re-crafted his 1970 hit "Move on Up." As Kidjo told the New York Amsterdam News in 2010:

"When I first heard this song when I was a child, I couldn’t believe those issues existed in America. When I moved to America, I not only realized he was telling the truth, but that those issues are still relevant. In fact not just America, but the world. When you take a look at the children of Africa, they stopped believing in what their futures could be. None of the leaders of Africa are thinking of creating jobs or creating a place where they can feel safe, confident, proud and dignified to live in, so I wanted to dedicate that song to kids and let them know it was O.K. to dream big."

Kidjo performed her rendition of this Mayfield classic in South Africa at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. As she told the Sowetan in June 2010: “I wanted to do and dedicate this song to the youth of Africa to show that it is possible for us to overcome the challenges. Enough of thinking that what comes from outside is better than what is from here. … Africa is not about misery and poverty, there is joy.”

(photo: Michelly Rall/Getty Images for Live Earth Events)

Comments
Download

Sitting Bull’s Legacy: Strength in Culture and Family

by Patrice Kunesh, special contributor

Louis Primeau and James McLaughlin on the Standing Rock AgencyLouis Primeau (seated, far right), the uncle of my grandfather, served as translator and tracker for James McLaughlin (leaning against tree), the U.S. official who ordered Sitting Bull’s arrest in December 1890.

As a law student studying the tragic history of the federal government’s unwarranted removal of thousands of Indian children from their families, I told my mother of my intent to fight for the right of Indian tribes to secure the well-being of those children. She replied, to my utter surprise, “No child should have to grow up on an Indian reservation.”

My view of the reservation had been constructed around stories from my grandfather, Theodore Kelly, a Hunkpapa Lakota who grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation in the early 1900s. He spent summers running with abandon through the prairie grass, fishing along the banks of the Missouri, hunting and relishing tachupa, the bone marrow, which he said was the best part. Seldom did he hear shi’cha (“naughty”), only hoksila seka (“good boy”) and hoksila washte (“good girl”).

My mother then told me about the precarious side of his childhood: the grinding poverty, the disease, and the despair that had become rooted into every part of the reservation. Often there was not enough food for the family or fuel to heat the house. His brother, along with scores of other children, was sent far away to a boarding school in Carlisle, Pennsylvania as part of the federal government’s assimilationist policies aimed at breaking up families and severing their ties to the land. Like so many other Indian children, he grew up confused and angry about his identity and indefinite place in American society. I was not dissuaded by my mother’s response — only more resolved to work for the rights of American Indian tribes to be self-determined and self-sufficient.

Sitting Bull (1885)I found my inspiration in the words of Sitting Bull, the spiritual leader of the Lakota people who also grew up in a territory that became the Standing Rock Reservation. Sitting Bull is renowned for his prowess as a warrior and visionary spiritual leader; but, later in life when pressed by the army, he would look first to the children, the old, and the sick. He would seek to secure their safety and consistently would give away his possessions and meat to feed and clothe them. He gained a reputation as the most generous man in a society where generosity was the ultimate virtue.

Even in the face of defeat, Sitting Bull’s primary concern was for the children. On the threshold of the passage of the General Allotment Act — one of the most pernicious pieces of legislation leading to the utter destruction of the traditional tribal way of life on the plains and prairies of the Dakota Territory — Sitting Bull finally surrendered to the U.S. Calvary to save his people from starvation and further degradations.

Years of fighting a losing battle against the government’s confiscation of Lakota lands and confinement onto reservations had reduced the Lakota to a pitiful state of privation and dependency. In 1883, just seven years before his tragic death, Sitting Bull addressed a committee of U.S. Senators at the Standing Rock Agency. While the senators insisted on more land cessions from the Lakota in the sacred grounds of Paha Sapa (the Black Hills), Sitting Bull reminded them of their treaty obligations for compensation and supplies. His pleas were not for himself, but for the children.

He said to the U.S. Senators who were visiting Standing Rock:

“I am looking into the future for the benefit of my children, the Sioux, and that is what I mean when I say I want my country taken care of for me. My children will grow up here, and I am looking ahead for their benefit, and for the benefit of my children’s children too; and even beyond that.”

Sitting Bull at Council Standing Rock Reservation 1887Sitting Bull addresses a federal commission with James McLaughlin at Standing Rock Reservation in Dakota Territory. (photo: D. F. Barry)

After years of conflict and the painful transition from an unencumbered life to a life as reservation accommodationists, some tribal people began to rethink what it meant to be Lakota, indeed to be part of the Sioux nation. To Sitting Bull, the true survival of his people meant cultural survival and the endurance of the tiospaye, or family relationships.

The foundations of his prominence as a leader and his spiritual powers were derived from his tiospaye, which nourished the Lakota lifeways and a culture that valued children and ensured their future well-being. Sitting Bull insisted on preserving the collectivity of the land and family through tribal customs and ceremonies.

Despite my mother’s faltering view of reservation life, she constructed her own life around the family as a sacred circle. In her home and in the homes of her 13 children, there is always a place for grandparents, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins and grandchildren. We often have a complete family circle at one time. The land we hold at Standing Rock also remains an essential cultural connection for us. It reminds us of Sitting Bull’s enduring legacy, which implores: “Let us put our minds together and see what future we can make for our children.”


Patrice KuneshPatrice Kunesh teaches federal Indian law at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion. She also directs the university’s Institute of American Indian Studies.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the On Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

Comments

Learning Through the Eyes of Others

by Ann Milliken Pederson, guest contributor

South Dakota Farmland and Big Horizon

When I first lived in the upper Great Plains, I did so as a freshman at Concordia College in Moorhead, Minnesota. I still remember the day when my parents’ car pulled away and I was standing by my dorm wondering why I had decided to move almost 800 miles from my home in Montana. While I would miss my parents and friends, I began to miss the mountains almost immediately.

I felt like Beret, the female protagonist in Giants in the Earth who left her home in Norway and moved to Dakota Territory. The vast grasslands and harsh climate nearly drove her mad. When I would look outward, I would think, “There’s nothing to see.” Flat land seemed to stretch everywhere and yet nowhere. Corn fields and soy beans. 

Almost 15 years later, I moved back to the Dakotas, this time as a professor in a small Lutheran college in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Once again, I found myself reading Giants in the Earth, wondering if I would go insane from looking at “nothing.” The prairie winds blew hot air all summer long, and in the winter I found it difficult to ski or be outdoors because as soon as it snowed the snow was blown into crusted ice piles.

Then, bit by bit, we became acquainted with new friends whose love for the prairie challenged my notion that it was “full of nothing.” My husband and I began to walk the prairie landscapes with our friends Janet and Ross, who is an environmental biologist and knows the names of every plant, bird, and tree.

I learned about the mating dances of prairie chickens, about the oak stands in Beaver Creek Nature area, and how to listen to the multiple calls of cardinals. Naming the multiplicity and buzzing life forms on the Dakota prairies drew me into what I now see as a change of view. “Nothing” has become “something.” And that something has slowly become a perspective on the Dakotas that has me calling this landscape “home.” It’s a different home than the mountains. But it’s home.

Not a Through Street on the Prairie

My eyesight has changed — thanks also to my friend Sheila. She’s an artist whose recent works feature the upper Great Plains. I have several of her paintings in our house, including two large prairie landscapes in my home office. When I write or prepare for teaching, I need to have “space” — openness where ideas can move around, where I can take a deep breath.

Since the actual office space isn’t very large, I find that her paintings create that space for me. The painting right above my computer is my favorite of hers. Large boulders are in the foreground of a prairie horizon. Two tree trunks frame the view through which I look into a receding horizon. I have always thought it was late summer or early fall when the ground is browned by the sun and the sky is dotted by a few white clouds. I always want to enter that place, sit on one of the rocks, and look into the spacious expanse of prairie. The view begs one to take ample time, time that is as plentiful and full as the panorama. When my life gets full of too much — iPods, voicemails, emails — then I come to this view to redesign my life, to change my surroundings.

Sheila’s views have become my spiritual lens for a geographical restructuring and transformation of my life. I hope that while on sabbatical I can find more views, and maybe even offer to others what Sheila has offered me.

Boulders and Tree Trunks

Who we are is where we are. Or at least where we have been and where we are going. I think about time: When? How long? I have been thinking a lot about the boundaries, borders, situations, dimensions, and locations of our lives. When and where are interrelated. When and where is a complicated plot between local and global, then and now, over and under. What are the maps that we take through these journeys? What does it mean to map the human genome? What are the cartographies of our culture? What are the maps that bypass the “underground” places? Recently, I drove to such a place.

It’s true that you “have to see it to believe it.” Or in other words, to step into this place is to step into the stories it tells. A few months ago, I drove to the golf course in Canton, South Dakota. Between the third and fourth hole on the Hiawatha Golf Club is a small cemetery with the bodies of those who had been kept as inmates in the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians.

Those Who Died at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane IndiansI’ve read a lot about this place, but still had not been to the site. It’s not easy to find. Surrounded by a split rail fence is a large grave marker with the names of dozens of American Indians who died at the asylum. There are 121 bodies buried in the graveyard — in the middle of a golf course — on the outskirts of Canton, which is the seat of Lincoln county. In 1899, a local U.S. senator, Richard Pettigrew, brought the federal funds to start this institution. A large historic district in Sioux Falls is named after Pettigrew. When the newly developing field of eugenics was coming of age, many people in the United States believed that one way to rid the country of “troublesome Indians” was to claim that they were “insane” and could be sent to the asylum. Hundreds of American Indians from around the U.S. were sent to the Canton asylum.

The Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians was intended to be a hospital dedicated solely to the “mental illness problem” among Native Americans. What it became was a kind of warehouse for storing “problem” Indians. When the asylum was visited in its later years, the following was noted in a report from Minnesota Public Radio: “The Indian affairs commissioner under President Roosevelt called reports of the asylum reminiscent of the terrible indictments Charles Dickens leveled against English poorhouses and schools.”

More information about the asylum’s operations came from the writings of Dr. Samuel Silk, the clinical director of the country’s premier psychiatric hospital, St. Elizabeth’s in Washington, D.C. He wrote that children were abused; adults were secluded in isolation for years. The asylum did not even meet minimum standards of care.

On the fairway between the third and fourth holes on this golf course, I wondered how my ancestors (Norwegian Lutherans) could live nearby and not know what happened to all these people at the asylum. “Good Norwegian Lutherans.” A “good South Dakota senator.” A history that is painful, ominous, and only 30 miles or so from where I live.

Grave Marker of a Person Who Died at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians

Where do I walk today, in these times that I don’t want to know about? That I turn a blind eye to? Shame won’t do me any good. But a guilt that is confessed, that motivates me to tell this story might help me to do something about all of those whose lives are hidden, not made visible, covered by those in power who don’t want to know. Maybe this wound on the South Dakota landscape can somehow become an anchorage — a reminder of where we are, who has lived here, and most importantly, the suffering of those who went before and whose stories need to be told. I’m learning a lot about the stories that this prairie landscape is telling me.


byron and annAnn Milliken Pederson is a professor of Religion at Augustana College in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran in America. She loves to walk with her dogs in the country, hear stories about middle school band students her husband teaches, and read mysteries.

We welcome your reflections, essays, videos, or news items for possible publication on the Being Blog. Submit your entry through our First Person Outreach page.

Comments
Download

The Negro Spiritual’s Sophisticated Theology

by Krista Tippett, host

I once met an American tourist who went to Siberia — and was peppered with questions about Joe Carter. Joe had made one of his riveting educational presentations about the African-American spiritual there, and had indelibly impressed his audience. His would forever be the glorious face they put on all people and things American. Joe’s presence — his voice, his spirit, and his life — made the world a more generous place.

And I love hearing Joe’s voice and sending it out into the world again — resurrection by radio. This show was special from the first. We sat in a spacious chamber where orchestras record — Joe and his pianist and I. And as we talked about the spirituals, Joe periodically stood up and sang to illustrate his points. We enjoyed ourselves immensely, and that enjoyment is audible in the final production.

It was revelatory to take this staple of American culture, as the spiritual has become — musical lines we can sing without thinking — and ask questions of it. It was painful to be reminded, foundationally, that this music had its genesis in slavery. Anonymous bards authored the body of work of some 5,000 songs that we know as the spiritual. Each song typically expresses a single sentiment or message, often born of grief.

These melodies and words, as Joe helped me understand, convey a sophisticated theology of suffering. It is a theology that leans into suffering — and in surrender, transforms and rises above it, if only in moments. Such moments are nurturing and sustaining. Human beings across the world have experienced this directly through hearing and singing the spirituals, generations later and in radically different contexts.

"The thing we find," Joe said, "is that in the midst of all of the most horrible pain, some of these powerful individuals lived transcendent, shining lives. They were able to be loving and forgiving in the midst of it all. Mammy was taking care of master’s baby. She could have smothered that child. But she loved the child like it was her own child, because there was something in her faith that said, ‘You’re supposed to be loving, you’re supposed to be kind, you’re supposed to be forgiving — and there’s no excuse if you’re not…’ The ancestors knew that the worst kind of bondage is that which takes place on the inside. And when we look back to the slavery days we were bound, but it was the master who was really the slave. And I think some of us understand that now."

I asked Joe whether he — himself a grandson of slaves — couldn’t reasonably begrudge the way in which white Americans have appropriated the spiritual, embraced it as their own. But that question was mine, not his. In Siberia and Africa and Wales, he says, these songs speak directly to the human will to survive precisely when the worst has happened. They have become symbolic of a universal yearning for freedom — “that part of us all which says, ‘I will not be defeated.’” We rebroadcast this hour in celebration of Joe Carter’s gifts of wisdom and music that echo vitally beyond his death.

The Books of American Negro SpiritualsAnd, if you’re interested in learning more, I recommend reading The Books of American Negro Spirituals by James Weldon Johnson. Joe Carter brought a battered, treasured early volume of this work with him to our interview. There is a 2002 combined volume of the two seminal collections of sheet music, history, and commentary that Johnson published in 1925 and 1926. They remain among the most significant reference resources ever compiled on this musical genre. Johnson’s prefaces are elegant and moving. Chapters are devoted to the most significant known spirituals. “As the years go by and I understand more about this music and its origin,” Johnson writes, “the miracle of its production strikes me with increasing wonder.”

Comments