A Blues Ecology Gospel of Black American History?–Chapter 2: Ecology Spacetime?

The parable of the river and the road conveys a religious message, but it is not what modern Western culture would call a religion. The parable describes a physically accessible religious experience within the space and time of the people who are sharing it. The “drum speech” language in which it was shared was part of that space and time as well. The Akan language is tonal. So each syllable must also be “sung” at the correct pitch to convey the correct meaning of each word.

In European spaces even up through the present time, such languages would be considered exotic, but more than half of the world’s languages, including most of the languages in Africa and southeast Asia are tonal. (Patel 2008: 40). The Akan and other West African tonal-language speakers developed an ecologically based fluency that enabled sending and receipt of messages over many miles using what we now call “talking drums.”

Talking drums were constructed and played to produce the different tones of a language in the same cadences and rhythms that people spoke. Ordinary people miles away could also hear and understand the drummers’ messages as if they were spoken over a cell phone. In order to send and receive such messages devoid of the consonant sounds of verbal speech, drummers and listeners needed to share a sensitivity to poetic improvisation grounded in the shared space and time of their common social and environmental ecologies. (Gleick 2011: 2-31).

In the parable of the river and the road, the life cycle of water in the river might be thought of as keeping the time—the time of life itself. The path allows people to share that life across a much wider space. In drum speech, the rhythms of the drum keep the time of a message, and the resonance of the drum allows people to also the message share across a much wider space. Both depend upon a balance of human ecology that might also be understood as an ecological balance of space and time, or of “ecology spacetime.” The modern western conquest of Africa and the Americas brought a different concept of space and time, however (Long 1999: 209-10).

Two emerging technologies seemed to make this possible. One was the gun (Gomez 2018: 4-5). The physical power of firearms made modern Western culture carriers exceptionally good at the killing that turns humble paths into mighty roads and ultimately into super highways. The other emerging technology was the printing press (Man 2009). The conceptual power of the printing press made it much easier to separate the acquisition of knowledge from the space and time of the cultures and experiences that gives knowledge its contextual meaning.

Ideally, better paths could improve access to the life conveyed by rivers. Sharing written wisdom from different rivers could also allow everyone to learn from the experiences of each other, and to therefore create even richer and better balanced global and local ecologies. Something like this seems to be in the process of happening. But something else is also happening that may still prevent it.

The gun was abused to commodify space by separating people from their land. The printing press was abused to commodify time. Peoples whose histories, cultures, and religions were not written down were treated as if they had none (Long 1963: 11-12). So, the modern Western concept of religion was separated from the space and time of its own ongoing religious experience.

Rivers of actual religious experience were no longer necessary. The modern Western concept of religion (as taught by the book and enforced by the gun) could now commodify religious experience from a particular space and time into a virtual reality that could go out on the road and compete with other commodities, religious and otherwise.

Modern Western spacetime seems more likely to describe the water in the river as a natural resource and the talent of a drummer as an entertainment resource. Resources (including the “human resources” currently measured in “man-hours”) may be used wisely or even reverently, but they are still resources to be used rather than ecologies of which we are composed and in which we participate.

The Blackamerican religious experience essentially began when trans-oceanic roads were filled with enslaved African labor for imposing unbalanced human ecologies and commodity spacetime throughout the soon-to-be “American” hemisphere. To escape the antagonistically “white” virtual reality they found themselves in, enslaved Africans had to create an invisible institution. It eventually gave birth to a Blackamerican Church to connect the Western concept of religion with actual Blackamerican religious experience. Lincoln wrote,

The Black Church evolved, not as a formal, black “denomination,” with a structured doctrine, but as an attitude, a movement. It represents the desire of Blacks to be self conscious about the meaning of their blackness and to search for spiritual fulfillment in terms of their own understanding of their history. There is no single doctrine, no official dogma except the presupposition that a relevant religion begins with the people who espouse it. Black religion then cuts across denominational, cult, and sect lines to do for black people what other religions have not done: to assume the black [person’s] humanity, … relevance, … responsibility, … participation, and … right to see [her- or] himself as the image of God.

(Lincoln 1974: 3)

Upon initially arriving in the Americas, enslaved Africans found ways to balance their human ecology through both continued religious experience of river ecology and continuing ecology spacetime practices such as drum speech. Eventually, however, the community ecology for drum speech among enslaved Africans was lost. Ecology spacetime was continued however through through the evolution of Blackamerican music.

As with many other ecologies throughout the world, modern Western culture did not become aware of drum speech until centuries later, when the capacity for understanding drum speech even in ethnic African communities had been by and large displaced by languages and technologies of a modern Western spacetime (Carrington 1949). In modern Western spacetime, rivers have become pleasant vacation spots at best, or hindrances to be paved over at worst.

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