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Some white congregations are paying to use hymns written by enslaved African people

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

As the national reckoning over racism grew over the past few years, many churches put up Black Lives Matter signs. A few are now going a step further and are trying to acknowledge financially the origins of some of the songs they sing during services. From member station WGBH in Boston, Craig LeMoult has the story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Lord, I want to be a Christian in my heart.

CRAIG LEMOULT, BYLINE: A hundred or so masked parishioners in the pews of the United Parish in Brookline joined together in singing "Lord, I Want To Be A Christian In My Heart."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In my heart, in my heart, in my heart.

LEMOULT: This song, like many that churches sing all over the country, comes from a musical tradition of spirituals originally composed by African people enslaved in America. Susan DeSelms is the minister of music at the United Parish, which is predominantly white.

SUSAN DESELMS: There's a lot of - you know, there was a growing discomfort around how to use Negro spirituals appropriately and respectfully.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Lord, I want to be more loving in my heart.

LEMOULT: Some parishioners began asking whether it was OK for a mostly white church to sing them at all. That debate within the church heated up, she says, after the murder of George Floyd.

DESELMS: And it brought up a lot of emotions from a lot of people. And I started thinking about, well, what can make this right? What can make this not feel terrible? And how do we get through this? I mean, we have a sign on our church that says Black Lives Matter. But what else? You know, what else do you want to do about that?

LEMOULT: DeSelms addressed the issue head-on in a recent homily at the church.

DESELMS: We're talking about Negro spirituals today.

LEMOULT: She starts off by addressing that word, which she tells the church is the preferred term for this music in Black communities.

DESELMS: Words matter. And while using the word Negro, even in this context, gives me discomfort, I can acknowledge that the discomfort is mine. And it comes from the shame I feel as a white person of privilege.

LEMOULT: DeSelms recounts the history of the music, beginning in 1619, when the first Africans were brought to America as slaves. And she says many people don't even realize which are Negro spirituals.

DESELMS: So let's test our knowledge.

(Singing) This little light of mine...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I'm going to let it shine.

DESELMS: (Singing) Swing low...

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Sweet chariot.

DESELMS: (Singing) I've got peace like a river.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) I've got peace like a river.

LEMOULT: When a church buys sheet music, the composers or their estates usually get some of that money as royalties. But the enslaved people who composed this music were never paid for their art, so DeSelms had an idea, which she announced at the service.

DESELMS: Today, we, as a church, will begin the practice of collecting royalties for the spirituals we sing and worship. Whenever we sing Negro spirituals, we will collect an offering that will support the development of Black musicians.

LEMOULT: Those royalties, as they're calling them, will be donated to a nonprofit youth music program called Hamilton-Garrett Music and Arts in the majority-Black Boston community of Roxbury.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Oh, Lord, kumbaya. Oh, Lord...

LEMOULT: Seven girls in Hamilton-Garrett's youth choir, ranging in age from 10 to 17, rehearse as the program's executive director, Gerami Groover-Flores, directs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Somebody is crying, oh, Lord. Kumbaya.

LEMOULT: The organization is devoted to carrying on the tradition of the Negro spiritual by teaching these songs to the next generation. Groover-Flores says she didn't always think that white churches should sing this music.

GERAMI GROOVER-FLORES: I think at one point and time in my life, I used to feel frustrated about it, to be fully transparent. I think that was just because of the fact that I wasn't quite sure that the individuals who were singing it truly understood the history behind it.

LEMOULT: But she says she now thinks they need more people to learn from this music and embrace it.

GROOVER-FLORES: So let's start having these conversations, building these partnerships where we can start to give the acknowledgement back to those who have created such a beautiful art form that we celebrate today.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) My God is a rock in a weary land.

LEMOULT: At the same time the Massachusetts church was working through these issues, an almost identical idea took shape at Montview Church in Denver, where the music includes performances like this one.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: (Singing) In a weary land, a shelter in a time of storm.

LEMOULT: The church's music minister, Adam Waite, says the idea started with a suggestion from his coach in an anti-racism training program.

ADAM WAITE: You know, she went right there. She's like, how about reparations? Have you thought about that?

LEMOULT: They talked it through and landed on the idea of what they're calling a reparations royalty program which could potentially include a donation anytime they perform a song by any Black composer. Waite says they could either ignore how Black artists have been treated in this country throughout history or acknowledge it

WAITE: As a white - predominantly white, predominantly privileged congregation, that's a choice we need to make, is to actively engage with our history, to be honest about our history. And hopefully that will make us a better community.

LEMOULT: To help shape the idea into something that other churches could try, they reached out to the Center for Congregational Song. The center's director, Brian Hehn, created an online questionnaire designed to guide houses of worship towards something similar. Hehn says this shouldn't be about helping white churches feel better about themselves.

BRIAN HEHN: We have to decenter our own feelings. This is not about alleviating our guilt. Rather, it's about inspiring our communities to build deeper relationships with people who look, think, act differently than we do and have different historical realities than we do.

LEMOULT: Around the country, some white churches have been grappling for years with the appropriate way to sing these songs.

EMMETT G PRICE III: There are other congregations who have brought in consultants to help teach performance practice.

LEMOULT: Emmett Price is a minister and the dean of Africana Studies at the Berklee College of Music.

PRICE: There are other congregations who have brought in consultants to contextualize the music so that the folks who are singing the music actually understand what they're singing since it comes from a different cultural background and a different cultural expression.

LEMOULT: But he says he's never seen churches make financial contributions like this before.

PRICE: This whole thing about the royalties for spirituals actually puts your wallet where your mouth is.

LEMOULT: Price says this is a great model for racial reconciliation. But he does think it has its limits.

PRICE: I don't think every white church in America has the capacity, has the vision, has the people who would catch the vision.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) Ride on, King Jesus. No man can a-hinder thee.

LEMOULT: For the Hamilton-Garrett Youth Choir in Boston, that vision is translating into tangible support. The organization's director, Gerami Groover-Flores, says the royalties are helping carry on the legacy of this music.

GROOVER-FLORES: They are, in some ways, repaying the individuals who created this music because you're supporting their descendants. You're supporting the next generation of their lineage to continue the work and the mission of preserving this art form, of preserving this history.

LEMOULT: Groover-Flores says the white congregation is honoring this music when they sing it and now trying to do justice for those who created it. For NPR News, I'm Craig LeMoult in Boston.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS: (Singing) In that great getting-up morning, fare thee well. Fare thee well. In that great getting-up morning, fare thee well. Fare thee well. In that great getting-up morning, fare thee well. Fare thee well. In that great getting-up morning... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Craig produces sound-rich features and breaking news coverage for WGBH News in Boston. His features have run nationally on NPR's Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition, as well as on PRI's The World and Marketplace. Craig has won a number of national and regional awards for his reporting, including two national Edward R. Murrow awards in 2015, the national Society of Professional Journalists Sigma Delta Chi award feature reporting in 2011, first place awards in 2012 and 2009 from the national Public Radio News Directors Inc. and second place in 2007 from the national Society of Environmental Journalists. Craig is a graduate of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Tufts University.
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