Singing Black Spirituals in Mostly-White Congregations

Our Advent series, “My Heart Shall Sing,” includes a suggested hymn for each Sunday of the season. Several come from other countries; two of them, “My Lord, What a Morning” and “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning,” are spirituals that originated in Black North American communities.

The question of whether spirituals can be performed by mostly-white groups has been getting more play in recent years in the world of both vocal performance and church music (read this, this, this, this, and this). It’s for good reason: there’s growing cultural acknowledgment that white supremacy still scars our institutions, including the Church—the five of us Barn Geese are ordained in one of the whitest denominations in the United States—and there’s no getting away from two aspects of American history that frame the white encounter with spirituals:

  1. Slavery. Many early African American spirituals are inextricably connected with the history of slavery in the United States.
  2. Minstrel shows. This uniquely American form of entertainment was popular from the early 19th to the early 20th century. These shows involved white performers blackening their faces and playing out racial stereotypes for the entertainment of fellow white people. 

Cards on the table: we Barn Geese a) are so convinced of the value of Black spirituals that we believe they’re worth singing even in the complicated context of mostly-white congregations, b) believe strongly in the importance of representing the diversity of God and of humanity in our worship, and c) are pretty dang white ourselves.

So we recognize that this gets complicated. And that the advice we offer is going to be inseparable from our experience as members of the privileged group in this conversation. So as you read, please take these caveats seriously: 

  • We’re not authorities on this subject. 
  • What we offer reflects our current understanding of best practices, which is always evolving. 
  • This article focuses on the Black culture that birthed the spirituals that form part of our Advent series for the two reasons we outlined above, but the risk of misappropriation applies to other songs in our Advent series too.
  • Most of all, we really, really hope that this article isn’t the only one you read on the subject, and that it gives you a jumping-off point to foster some robust dialogue among your leadership, congregation, and community.  

That said, here are five considerations for mostly-white congregations who sing spirituals:

  1. Remember that spirituals are sacred living artifacts.

They represent the suffering and resilience of a people. Their composers and authors are often unknown and uncredited. Spirituals are also living artifacts: they continue to grow, change, breathe, and give life. For many Black people, spirituals offer a connection to ancestral wisdom and resilience that may be otherwise inaccessible by genealogy tracing or blocked by trauma. White people are wise to remember that these songs carry a spiritual trust for all of us, but that they do not belong to all of us. 

  1. Invite your musicians and your congregation to join you in this learning.

Teach your congregation about the spirituals you sing. Who may have written them? Why do they have the structure they do? What does the text refer to? What information did people communicate with them? What is their history? 

These questions are best undertaken in a congregation that’s already engaged in the work of racial justice, but they can also be the doorway to that work. 

By the way, Barn Goose Linnéa provided bulletin blurbs for every song in “My Heart Shall Sing” to help you get a foot in the door with this work. You can find them in the Hymn Commentary—a resource we designed with church musicians in mind.

  1. Research historic and current performance practices.

Look up YouTube videos to see how Black communities and artists traditionally perform these songs. (We made you a playlist for our Advent series!) Why don’t we sing “My Lord, What a Morning” happy and fast? Why do we want a nice steady walking rhythm for “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning?” Our hymn commentary for “My Heart Shall Sing” provides a starting point for this research, and also provides short blurbs appropriate for bulletins or for oral sharing before the congregation sings— a simple way to invite the congregation into further learning.

Doing this research might lead you to performance practices that your congregation isn’t equipped to reflect/reflect well; for example, you might hear the use of an instrument that comes from another culture, or a style of music in which your musician isn’t fluent, or a dialect that no one in your choir speaks. Opinions about how to interpret these performance practices in a mostly-white congregation vary—a lot—and we can’t offer hard-and-fast rules about what’s going to work best for your congregation. We commend to you these words from Courtney Ariel as you and your musicians approach these questions:

“When we hold things that belong to — and were created by and for — a group of people with an ethnicity, religion, spirituality, culture, sexual orientation, gender identity, and/or lived experience outside of our own, we must hold these things very carefully and lovingly, acknowledging that we are visitors within that space.”

A small rabbit hole we invite you to visit: be mindful that of all the possible ways to misappropriate a song from another culture, the one that seems most likely to trigger a reaction is when a white or mostly-white choir sings with an accent or dialect that doesn’t belong to them. While some folks feel that taking a song out of its original dialect is another form of misappropriation, we suggest that mostly-white communities steer away from unfamiliar accents or dialects.

  1. Consider using music to build a bridge to other communities in your neighborhood. 

Let’s say you’re serving a congregation that’s still not singing communally, because, y’know, pandemic. Instead, you’ve decided to use soloists to introduce one or more of the songs that anchor “My Heart Shall Sings.” Can you tap soloists from your congregation that reflect the culture from which the songs emerged? Or hire a professional singer from that culture to sing?

And if the answer to that is “no,” then can you leverage that “no” to explore the “why not?”

Maybe there are no members of your congregation who 1) have roots in that culture and 2) are willing to sing, and there’s no funds for hiring professionals either.

Maybe there’s no one from that culture in your whole town. 

Maybe taking on this question in the middle of one of the most hectic times of the church year doesn’t fit into your personal energy budget.

Maybe you’re game for the conversation, but know that it will be a healthier one if you can lay more groundwork with your leadership first.

And MAYBE—just maybe—your community and/or leadership is ripe to talk about their longing to build stronger relationships with communities of color in your town, and the question of how to bring in a soloist of color can open up a much bigger conversation about building relationships with the neighbors to whom God has given you.

  1. Remember that you’re worshiping, not putting on a concert.

Many articles on the topic of white people singing spirituals approach the question assuming a performance context. A song offered as a hymn by a faith community is a different animal than the same song performed by an artist for an audience. Singing spirituals as an act of faith and offering of praise should raise questions of how we can engage with these songs in a spirit of obedience to the Great Commandment: loving God above all things, and our neighbors as ourselves.

Our hope and challenge for you is that if your congregation chooses to sing these spirituals this Advent—or at any time—then they also choose to step into the confession, the reconciliation, and the radical hope that our uniting Christ offers.

Published by Barn Geese

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