Trying to Make Old Negro Spirituals Resonate With the Hip-Hop Generation

Stephanie Simon, Wall Street Journal, December 5, 2008

Eighth-grader Tre Hunter scrunched down in his chair and explained why he didn’t expect much from the coming concert of old Negro spirituals.

He prefers hip-hop, he said with a grin. “It’s more inappropriate. But it has the beat.”

Then the lights dimmed and, as the first choral notes floated up, a slide show began: images from a slave ship and a slave auction; drawings of children bending to pick cotton, bending to be whipped. Tre, 14 years old, straightened up.

The concert was put on by The Spirituals Project, a nonprofit that aims to nurture African-American students by connecting them to their past. With the nation’s first black president preparing to move into the White House, many young African-Americans are looking ahead. The Spirituals Project, like other leadership programs, offers words of caution: Slow down. Look back.

As a generation of young black leaders, who didn’t necessarily participate in the civil-rights struggles, emerge on the political stage, older mentors hesitate to sound like they are dwelling on the brutal legacy of centuries past. Yet they say young African-Americans can’t appreciate the significance of Barack Obama’s election or prepare to reach for bigger milestones without a thorough grounding in their history.

Students today must “study the lessons learned from the past and know the pain that comes with sacrifice,” said Arlivia Gamble, chairman of the National African-American Women’s Leadership Institute in Dallas. “I learn more about my own story from hearing the stories of others, and these songs are the stories of peoples’ lives,” Ms. Gamble said.

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But as Mr. Obama prepares to take office, Dr. Jones wonders whether these songs of oppression and resistance will still resonate.

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His answer: a lot. He thinks spirituals can inspire the black community of today much as they kept hope alive in 19th-century slaves. “These people didn’t have any reason to be hopeful, to think they could change anything, yet they did,” he said. “That needs to be a model for us today . . . when we have all these problems like gang violence and unwed pregnancies.”

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Such work is vital to helping students put Mr. Obama’s victory in context—and locate their own lives squarely within the tradition of black struggle and success, said Roland Carter, a board member of the National Association for the Study and Performance of African-American Music.

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But their friend Christina Alexander, 13, was deeply moved. As she listened to the voices blending in harmony, she said she kept recalling the brutal images that opened the concert. “To think,” she said, “that our ancestors were singing.”

spirituals

The Spirituals Project.

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