A Blues Ecology Gospel of Black American History?–Chapter 1: A Human Ecology?

C. Eric Lincoln defined the “black religion” he wrote about half-a-century ago in terms of religious experience. Enslaved Africans and their descendants in the Americas have struggled for centuries with a profoundly religious “double consciousness” of both the “black” disposable commodities that “white” America attempted to make of them and the images of God they actually were. Lincoln wrote:

In short, black religion is a conscious effort on the part of black people to find spiritual and ethical value in their understanding of history. Their history. This is neither parochialism nor racism. Rather it is the realization that even as God is above history [God] acts in history, and that somewhere in the flux, at some time the individual is confronted with the question of what the acts of God mean…. Out of his [or her] understanding of God, in the context of [her or] his own experience, [a person] gropes for meaning and relevance. Assurance and reconciliation. This is religion. When the context of that groping is conditioned by the peculiar, anomalous context of the black experience in America, it is black religion.

(Lincoln 1974: 1-3)

In articulating this emergence of religion out of experience, Lincoln referred to “black” people at least once and perhaps more often as “Blackamericans.” I will continue that practice in what follows for reasons perhaps most eloquently stated when Sherman A. Jackson explained,

… what prompted me to vex my reader with the neologism, “Blackamerican,” a term I picked up from the late C. Eric Lincoln but which, to my knowledge, he never explained. My use of the term is based on the following considerations. On the one hand, to speak simply of “black Americans” as the counterparts of “white Americans” is to strengthen the hand of those who wish to deny or hide white privilege. On the other hand, to speak of African Americans is to give short shrift to almost half a millennium of New World history, implying that Blackamericans are African in the same way that Italian Americans or Greek Americans are Italian or Greek. I emphatically recognize, wholly embrace, and celebrate the African origins of Blackamericans. But in my view, the force of American history has essentially transformed these erstwhile Africans into a new people. This is especially so with regard to their religious orientation. Of course, I could have opted for the hyphenated convention “Black-American.” But …the whole point of the hyphenated American is that the right side of the hyphen assumes the responsibility of protecting the cultural, religious, and other idiosyncrasies of the left side. As Blackamericans have rarely if ever enjoyed this protection on a par with other ethnic Americans, it would be misleading, in my view, to cast blacks as just another hyphenated group in America.

(Jackson 2005: Kindle location 235)

The people who enslaved Africans and brought them to the Americas did not create “black people.” They purposefully destroyed the ethnic identities and dignity of African people. The creation of Blackamerican people came through their assertion of a sacred life consciousness that refuses to and cannot be commodified. I have emphasized Lincoln’s use of the term black religion, because the 500-year evolution of Blackamerican music, both sacred and secular, seems to also provide a historical narrative of Blackamerican religious experience that is similar in quality to the scriptures of modern Western religions with two notable exceptions. One is that Blackamerican music has been so thoroughly commodified by “white” America that it is just as (if not more) well documented than the histories in ancient scriptural narratives. The other is that Blackamerican music chronicles the emergence of a religious history in the present time and place, rather than in distant lands of the distant past.

Such a contemporary religious history can also provide a powerful lens for interpreting ancient scriptural narratives within the context of contemporary events. This paper sets about creating such a lens, beginning with an English language translation of an Akan parable, originally communicated through the medium of “drum speech.”

The river crosses the path,
the path crosses the river,
who is elder?
The path was cut to meet the river,
the river is of old,
the river comes from
“Odomankoma” the Creator.

(Bakan 2012: 191-3)

The river in the parable is described as the “elder” because it comes from the Creator, while the path was cut by human hands. The river thus becomes a source of sacred wisdom for the path and for the human community that creates and maintains the path. Water flowing in the river sustains both the human life that cuts the path and the vegetation that must be cut to make the path. An obvious lesson that the river teaches is in the manner that it comes from the Creator. It essentially describes an ecology.

River water falls to the earth as rain. Rainwater gathers into freshwater rivers that flow into saltwater seas. Solar radiation distills fresh water vapor from the seas. The vapor accumulates in clouds to start the cycle all over again. This river ecology is also analogous to the cycle of human life. Unlike rivers, which flow from the Creator of life, paths—which have become roads, streets, and freeways in the modern world—are created by people who must kill and and otherwise deter plant and animal life that might otherwise grow and live there.

Paths serve an important purpose, however. They allow human communities to access the river and to exchange various items or commodities we need to survive and thrive. On the surface, this distinction between river and path may sound like a distinction between sacred and secular. What the parable actually does, however, is describe a human community ecology that both creates and is created by the intersection of the river and the path. This ecological parable of the river and the path seems to teach that the exchange of commodities along the path must serve the life conveyed by the river, and not the other way around.

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