Today I’m going to talk about a lighter topic. Well, sort of. It’s still not Lewis, but one I think he’d find interesting. I love Black poetry. I put it that way on purpose – not just poetry by African Americans, necessarily. But the poetry of freedom – it is so powerful and gritty and beautiful. I usually read a little poetry in the morning to wake my brain up, and the other day I began re-reading The Black Poets, edited by Dudley Randall. It’s a great place to start if you’ve never read any – it starts with spirituals and other slave songs and moves all the way through to 1970.

So, this morning I read one of my absolute favorites – ‘O Black and Unknown Bards’ by James Weldon Johnson. It honors the anonymous authors of the spirituals. In it, he marvels that people so oppressed, so crushed, could compose such beautiful, stirring melodies and that they should sing in praise to God. It’s full of the irony that a people thought to be lacking in intelligence could compose songs full of double meaning, and comparing their work to the classical masters. That last line, though, is the kicker. ‘You sang a race from wood and stone to Christ.’ 

Just wow.

The horrible, horrible blasphemy of slavery (blasphemy because calling and treating those created in God’s image as though they were not is nothing less) brought people who had once been princes, princesses, valued members of their tribes, to a place where they were destitute, treated like animals to be bought and sold. I’m sure when many of them were introduced to the gospel, they saw it as just a white man’s religion. Some adopted it in order to placate their owners, yes. But many realized, rightly, that Jesus was much more like them than like their white masters. He also was a brown man, ruled over and oppressed by white men, treated as less-than by them, turned over by his own people to be killed by them. So many of them found in the Scriptures their hope – truly came to trust in the God who freed his people from the Egyptians. 

Most slaves were never taught to read or write. So as they learned the stories and the truths of the Bible, they composed songs about them. They began to sing of their hope – to express their joy and confidence or their sorrow and longing, and to draw others toward Christ. They wrote songs fitted to the needs of their people. Songs of comfort or encouragement, yes, but also songs of which Johnson says, ‘Such were the notes that men have sung/Going to valorous deeds’. People who read them assuming the authors weren’t genuinely believers miss out on the beautiful double meanings. ‘Steal Away to Jesus’ and ‘Deep River’ are both about dying and about escaping literal captivity. To say they are only about one or the other is to downplay the intelligence and creativity of the poetry. When they sang of Moses and Joshua, they sang of how God had freed his people and about how they hoped he would free them. They took the Scriptures and applied it to their lives in the only way available to them and they did, indeed, sing a race to Christ.

This poem made me think in a new way about Kanye West’s conversion and release of his new album. I know that some believers are hesitant to accept his conversion as real. Perhaps they have become accustomed to thinking that someone who has fallen so far is unredeemable, of being hesitant to accept any celebrity conversion as real – or of being worried about what embarrassment such a person might bring if they fall away, or if they embrace a form of Christianity unacceptable to the individual. But two things make me think his conversion to Christianity is real. The first is that from what I’ve read he’s perpetually honest, even raw, in his music – calling himself a god when he’s on a high, freely admitting his destructive tendencies when he recognizes them. And the album is full of an acknowledgement of sin and the need for grace and dependence on Christ necessary for conversion. The second is that he’s doing exactly what his forefathers and mothers did. He’s singing – composing music  that both expresses what he is feeling and thinking and urges others to come to Jesus. The composers of the spirituals created music that came from their African roots, composing new songs of encouragement, of lament, of rejoicing, of invitation that centered on their new faith. I think Kanye is doing the same, using the gospel music of the church crowd and the hip hop influences that permeate the African American community. I listened to the album. It’s not something I’ll listen to often – the changes are too abrupt, too drastic for my taste. Of course his theology needs time to develop, to grow and solidify – but doesn’t everyone’s? So I will do as he asks on the album. I will pray for him, that he will grow in Christ and that I’ll see him in that great gettin’ up mornin’.

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2 thoughts on “Black Bards

  1. Hope there is someone there to disciple him in the, as Eugene Peterson put it, “long obedience in the same direction”.

    Great post – love the old spirituals – there is the practical theology of suffering in its glory and grace

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