A Blues Ecology Gospel of Black American History?–Chapter 5: A Ring Shout Spring?

The type of direct continuations of African religion as happened in Brazil tended to be unusual in the colonies that would eventually become the United States of America, because of Protestant as opposed to Catholic religion, a lower population density of enslaved Africans than in the Caribbean and South America, and prohibition of ethnic meetings. Even without drums and perhaps even without specific memory of ethnic African traditions, however, the musically expressed ecological consciousness of Blackamericans was born anyway in fertile agricultural ecologies like the river deltas of the Georgia Sea Islands, where the Blackamerican “invisible institutions” or invisible churches often had to be kept secret (Raboteau 2004: 210-9).

Enslaved Africans were often prohibited from learning to read, and those who were allowed to practice modern Western religion were taught it in a way that would make them into better disposable commodities (Kendi 2019: 22). Others were prohibited from any religious expression at all and often received torturous punishments, sometimes to death, if they were even caught praying (Raboteau 2004: 210-9).

So enslaved Africans connected their actual religious experience with the modern Western religions of their new environment through “spirituals” and other songs that continued African oral tradition of documenting their actual experiences. The songs were often transmitted and shared through the rhythmic dance (Fisher 1998: Locations 110-251) referred to as ring shouts in the Americas when danced for religious purposes.

I’ve embedded a link below to a website for the McIntosh County Shouters, who have kept this legacy going to the present time. The perspective that I draw for the hypothesis I am developing focuses on just one aspect. I recommend checking out this website to get a much broader perspective as well.

McIntosh County Shouters

In the 1930s, research published by Lorenzo Dow Turner (1890-1972) seemed to connect this Blackamerican ritual (as observed among descendants of enslaved Africans in the river deltas and marshlands of the Georgia Sea Islands) to similar rituals and linguistic features in Sierra Leone and in Bahia–as shown in the illustrations and text below from a 21st century exhibit of Turner’s work at the Smithsonian Institution.

Doing the Ring Shout in Georgia, ca. 1930s Members of the Gullah community express their spirituality through the “ring shout” during a service at a local “praise house.” Anacostia Community Museum.

Turner’s pioneering work, which in the 1930s established that people of African heritage, despite slavery, had retained and passed on their cultural identity through words, music and story wherever they landed. His research focused on the Gullah/Geechee community in South Carolina and Georgia, whose speech was dismissed as “baby talk” and “bad English.” He confirmed, however, that quite to the contrary the Gullah spoke a Creole language and that they still possessed parts of the language and culture of their captive ancestors. Turner’s linguistic explorations into the African diaspora led him to Bahia, Brazil, where he further validated his discovery of African continuities….

(Smithsonian 2010)
This photograph was taken by Lorenzo Dow Turner while conducting field work in Brazil.

Stuckey described the religious purposes of the ring shout and related oral traditions carried over from African burial ceremonies as providing “bridges to the hereafter.” As such, they essentially convey African consciousness of religious experience, in which what might be described as human ecology becomes analogous to and perhaps even indistinguishable from the cyclical ecology of time in the biosphere and the cosmos. The Western Christian narrative was combined with African spirituality in the Blackamerican burial ceremony without any conflict. Stuckey wrote,

The two visions of religion in the tale, the traditional African and the Christian, were complementary and explainable in relation to the African view of religious experience, which does not function from a single set of principles but deals with life at different levels of being. The … center of the African’s morality is the life process and the sacredness of those who brought him into existence. … The maintenance of this continuity from generation to generation is justification for his being and the basis on which he determines proper behavior.

(Stuckey 2013: Kindle locations 1117-64)

Such rhythmic song and dance–expressed in the European language and religious tradition of America–gave birth to a Blackamerican people: speaking American language, needing to work out life in American culture, and sharing a common oppression beneath a “white” American religion that denied their “black” religious experience. The songs that drew themes and lyrics from “white” American religion came to be known as “Negro spirituals.” Fisher describes their evolution over time in response to changing situations from the formation of the republic up through the emancipation (Fisher 1998).

Sinner Please1740-1815Camp meetings start replacing African secret meetings
Deep River1816-1831Hope of returning to Africa
Steal Away1800-1831Focus on revolt
You’d Better Min’
“I am Bound for the Promised Land”
“When I Die”
1832-1867Suffering under white backlash to Nat Turner’s rebellion: Evangelization, escape, conciliation, hope of returning to Africa.
“Oh Freedom”1861-1867Emancipation
Fisher suggests major spiritual themes for each of the five historical periods in the table above. Spirituals for the first four time periods in the table are Fisher’s suggestion. I’ve replaced Fisher’s suggestion for the fifth period with one from the same period that fits with the conclusion of this paper. I’ve embedded a YouTube link below to a beautifully inspiring performance of the fifth spiritual in the table above as well.
Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=epVJNoU1DEU&t=59s

W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that in relationship to their percentage of the population, more enslaved Africans and their descendants fought to save the union during the American Civil War than did Americans of European descent. He also wrote that it was the Blackamerican effort that made the difference between winning and losing (Du Bois 1999).

So even though, this period from independence through emancipation was an unbelievably harsh time for Blackamericans battling chattel slavery, I think of it as an American spring time that gave birth to American republics and to a Blackamerican people. Spring is a time when the rain falls, and also when the daily duration of light begins to exceed the daily duration of darkness. So I consider the gradual emergence of the spirituals (and secular music as well) as the source of an emerging light–amongst Blackamerican people in particular and for Americans in general–that began to sprout seeds of ecological spacetime and crack through the thawing dirt of America’s post-apocalyptic commodity spacetime.

I cannot imagine departing a discussion of spirituals without including a reference “Go Down Moses”, which in and of itself seems to say much more about Blackamerican religious experience and aspiration than can otherwise be put into words. In looking around on the web for a good link to recommend, I found this YouTube presentation that for me stands head and shoulders above everything else. Enjoy!
(Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9ZRtvKPB_r8)

Musically proficient Africans provided entertainment for enslavers during this time that became known as plantation music. The African banjo, imported through the Caribbean and New Orleans became the primary instrument for “American Roots Music.” Although I had heard statements to this effect before, it didn’t sink in until I ran into presentations by MacArthur Genius Grant awardee Rhiannon Giddens, such as the one below. In addition to providing perspectives that are fundamental to my hypothesis, the presentation below spans a much greater breadth of musical, cultural, and historical genius. As with other references in this paper, I strongly suggest checking it out to both draw your own perspectives and also to appreciate the artistry.

Embedded from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQe1p53YN2w

Blackamerican folk music and expressions, once shared with new immigrants as a way of community building at the bottom of the American economic and social ladder, became blackface minstrel shows. Such entertainment demeaned and degraded Blackamericans, while the other new immigrants learned how to become white enough to move up the social and economic ladder (Bowser 2012: Kindle locations 1564-86).

After the emancipation, “white” America enacted “black codes” to keep using Blackamericans as its disposable commodities at the bottom of the social and economic ladders, since chattel enslavement was no longer legal. Blackface minstrelsy gave birth to what would eventually become a global entertainment industry.

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