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.
And, 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.”