‘A Celebration of Spirituals’ at Hayti
African-American spirituals -- in song, in words, in history and in spirit – filled the Hayti Heritage Center Wednesday night.
The three-fold event, “A Celebration of Spirituals,” included spirituals sung by the 100 Men in Black Chorus, historical context and some singing by Duke Chapel Dean, Rev. Luke Powery, and poetry call and response with author and illustrator Ashley Bryan.
It was standing room only in the filled Hayti center, which once housed St. Joseph’s AME Church, its stained glass windows as testament. The event was presented by the Durham County Library.
Pianists Paula Harrell and Ray Watkins accompanied the 100 Men in Black, led by Marlon West, as they sang “Go Down, Moses,” “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Oh, Freedom,” and “Let Us Break Bread Together,” among others. MIB member Anthony McCrae soloed during “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” ending the song with a few words against crime and said we are all God’s children.
“I didn’t come to preach, I just came by to let you know how good God is,” McCrae said, and was affirmed by the audience, which felt like a congregation.
Powery talked about what W.E.B. DuBois called “haunting echoes” that are rooted in historical oppression and terror. The music rose up on slave ships, “created on the anvil of misery,” Powery said.
“These songs were literally a matter of life and death,” he said. “The spirituals rose of the situation not only of physical death but social death. …Those who were snatched from Africa, they did not lose their song.”
Spirituals are called spirituals, Powery said, because of divine origin, that the Holy Spirit revealed.
He also talked about spirituals as a dissenting voice by slaves as a nonviolent expression against oppression.
It is the soul of black folks, Powery said, referencing DuBois’ writings.
“To the slave, without a song, life would be destroyed by death,” Powery said. “Singing was a means of survival. Without these melodies, many would not have survived.”
Powery said spirituals gave strength to the weak and the weary, and the songs themselves implied community when family community was destroyed by slavery. Songs could also be hidden messages to gather in a secret place, he said.
“The spirituals, I think, teach us that singing is a vital and necessary response to suffering,” Powery said. “These songs are not just songs of the soul, but life itself.”
Bryan, the first African-American male author and illustrator of children’s books, was 40 when his first book was published in the 1960s. His work includes books inspired by spirituals, including “Walk Together Children: Black American Spirituals.”
“The incredible spirit of those songs living in me led me to draw the illustrations in those books for children,” said Bryan, who lives in Maine.
Children know spiritual songs, but not where they come from, he said. They don’t know the history, that spirituals are “a gift from the musical genius of black American slaves who were not allowed to read or write.”
Bryan led call and response recitations with the audience of poems by Langston Hughes, Nikki Giovanni and Eloise Greenfield, then the 100 Men in Black came back on stage to perform more songs.
As they sang “Old Time Religion,” the audience joined in, their voices, clapping and foot-tapping swelling the room with spirit.