Friday, February 17, 2012

Book Notes: The Spirituals and The Blues by James H. Cone

For James Cone, neither The Spirituals, nor The Blues, can be appreciated as musical/lyrical/cultural expressions, apart from the Black experience of America which birthed them. In fact, in this book he goes almost as far as claiming that it is not possible to understand them unless one is part of that very experience. His withering comments about those who would seek to use the objective tools of historical analysis to dissect this music, from outside the experience and faith of Black-America (p4), are foundational for the book. This swipe is obviously aimed at writers like the celebrated Paul Oliver, whose work does feature in Cone's bibliography. "I contend, that there is a deeper level of experience which transcends the tools of  "objective" historical research. And that experience is available only to those who share the spirit and participate in the faith of the people who created these songs", he writes. And then later, "Black music is also social and political. It is social because it is black and thus articulates the separateness of the black community. It is an artistic rebellion against the humiliating deadness of western culture." (p5-6).

Cone was one of the first theologians to apply so-called "Liberation-Theology" to the experience of Black America in the 1960s, for which he gained both fame and notoriety, depending on who you ask. The Spirituals and The Blues was written in the early 1970s and so the context of his writing is both to build upon that theological base, applying it to this particular cultural form; and also to assert the essential Black-ness of the music at a time when it was being increasingly appropriated by white performers and artists. 

Cone rejects many of the interpretations of The Spirituals which preceded him, such as that by Marxists who insisted that Slave-religion was guilty of the pacification of the oppressed by the offering of false post-mortem rewards for the compliant; the standard 'pie-in-the-sky' opiate. Cone, while demonstrating that that is exactly what White-Christianity was directly and appallingly guilty of, forwards an interpretation of the Spirituals which is politically radical. Aware of the obvious rebuttal to his thesis, Cone takes his time to ensure that such a reading is not simply an eisegesis of the sources from the vantage point of  post civil-rights era radicalism, but roots his reading deeply into the experience of American slavery. From here, apparently innocuous songs and sermons become loaded with political intent. The use of Moses and the Exodus metaphor is only one of a handful of Biblical themes which oppressed people could sing without alarming their 'masters', but which had direct, revolutionary significance for the slave. That is not so say that they were only political metaphors, stripped of theological force; but rather that for Christian-slave, the salvation they looked to God for was not postponed until after death but would begin here, with the freeing of captives and the giving of sight to the blind. As Cone points out, for slave insurrectionist like Nat Turner, their actions were not done as a rejection of God or Christianity, but in seeking to claim the promises they saw within it. Cone, rather elegantly, argues that the spirituals (and then their 'secular counterparts' The Blues), are though more than coded protest songs. In fact their very composition and expression was a powerful political-social-theological statement which affirms the humanity, value and personhood of the people from whom it comes - and this in the face of a system designed to rob them of precisely that personhood. Rather than accepting white values, or escapist theology, or indeed rejecting Christianity - in Cone's reading the singers he examines looked to the Christian God to aid them in their struggle to survive; and who would lead them one day to liberty. (p61)

The lament of the Blues, Cone sees as the other side of the same coin, of the self-expression of the marginalised - albeit without reference to God. "You've never seen a mule sing" Cone quotes the legendary bluesman Blind Lemon Jefferson (also a singer of spirituals as Deacon LJ Bates) as saying. That nicely contrasts the two views of black personhood which existed in his experience and the way in which in his creativity asserted his humanity.

In terms of a reading of these wonderful, and so powerfully evocative musical forms, Cone's book is quite wonderful. As black American music has in so many ways conquered the world in successive waves of gospel, blues, jazz, soul, funk, hip-hop and rap; it becomes progressively easier to detach the sound from the context which created it, and which in a sense still owns it in a way which the external appreciator (how ever enraptured) never quite can. Cone's account is though, not without its controversial aspects and elements which I couldn't entirely accept. Liberation Theology is a case in point. While I entirely agree that the gospel must bring economic and social justice in its wake, and that any movement which does not embrace the marginalised is woefully sub-Christian, and that the Kingdom of God is to be advanced here 'as in heaven' in which all peoples are equal and liberation is achieved for all: I do not believe that Liberation Theology alone gives an adequate account of the gospel of Christ. Cone exclusively operates within the framework of liberation theology here - and that is problematic. 

Another element of the book which I found troublesome was Cone's use of absolute generalisations about peoples as if such stereotyping was either historically true or theologically helpful. So for instance, his insistence that slave-religion did not internalise the values of the oppressor, and didn't view 'heaven' as otherworldly but as a emancipation; might be true up to a point. Far more likely it seems to me is that there were a range of responses to the evil of slavery, and that such categorical statements are unlikely to be realistic. If Cone wants to justify this on the grounds that compromised responses were less authentically black and therefore to be excluded from his account, he at that point needs some of the tools of the 'objective historian' to correct his ideological slant. Most provocatively of all, Cone likes to employ the Calvinist terminology of "the elect" (that is to so, the chosen of God for His salvation) in racial terms. In Cone's version of political salvation this is understandable, but is a world away from the use of such terms in the New Testament. Where Cone commends "black-religion" for resisting the importation of "white-categories" into their reading of the Bible (which is a good thing), he needs to be careful not to be also excluding biblical, especially Pauline categories from his. Where 'love for enemies' and Christ's ethical teaching fits into Cone's appreciation of Black music is not mentioned.

The Spirituals and The Blues, (despite the fact that I read it from a totally different theological and cultural perspective than the author), is powerfully provocative, and compelling reading. Anyone who loves this music, and (like me) has wondered why it able to move them so deeply, profoundly and powerfully should read it. Next time I am listening to the heavenly growling of Blind Willie Johnson singing "What is the Soul of A Man?" I will not hear those words in isolation, as an abstract theological or philosophical musing. Instead I will hear a Black man singing from the context of poverty and segregation. In his song, the soul before God is not black or white but equal. Likewise, his song affirms that despite what he has been told since birth, he too is a man, with a soul. Next time I listen to someone sing, "I want Jesus to walk with me", I will think if Cone's discussion of the solitary nature of so many of these songs - as they came from a time when families were so often split up at the auctioneer's block - and communities separated. "In my troubles, walk with me" - are words I have both heard and sung as prayers in dark days; but again Cone's work helps me embed these words within the historical and racial realities in which they were heart-cries. 

Cone's passionate love for Black American music and people is gripping, while his analysis brings a new dimension to the appreciation of the music. 

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