“Y’all gon’ sing this woman to the other side,” Aunt Wilma said to us as Ma’s hospice room filled with song.
Songs passed down from unknown authors so they’re just called spirituals. Songs made famous in fields long before radio waves carried them worldwide. Deborah Snipes, The Soul Stirrers, James Cleveland, Mahalia Jackson, and so many pages from The New National Baptist Hymnal filled that space where people go to die with the power of the resurrected Savior that promises life.
“She ain’t gon’ die with y’all in the room,” Aunt Wilma said. She was right. At about 3:00 a.m. the last chorus rang out, so my two brothers and I went to the room next door to lay down on couches too small to hold the weight of the pain of God’s promise—only our bodies. Flesh and bone that can’t go see God with my Momma tonight. We gon’ have to wait. And that sucks.
I’ll be alright…
I’ll be alright…
He would take care of me…
I’ll be alright.
We weren’t lying on those single sleeper sofas for more than two hours before Aunt Wilma came to tell us that Momma had gone home to see the Jesus that she taught us to sing about. The Jesus we were begging to “come by here” had done just that. He came and that chariot did indeed “swing low”.
That day, it was my turn to cry the mix of tears that flood altars at Black churches. Tears of sadness that the ones we love are gone but also weeping joyfully because they don’t have to “study war no more”.
My momma did not have to fight anymore; and fight she did. Because to be Black, female, and poor in this country is to be at war with it at all times because it is at war with her. “It” being a Doctrine of Discovery that dehumanized her ancestors and justified the land theft, enslavement, and sexual violence that marked her foremothers as chattel. “It” being White American Folk Religion (WAFR)—the race, class, gender-based hierarchy at work in the post-colonial context of the United States under a false Christ. “It” being the individuals and institutions devoted to the heretical marriage of militant, patriarchal, “Christian” nationalism and white supremacy that animate dominant culture. Her commitment to God, seeking intimacy with Him, and loving her neighbors was clear in the verses highlighted in her Bible held together by packing tape. She was not beholden to identities rooted in the pursuit of whiteness, wealth, and power, but she was subject to them. And just like Daniel, when the trumpet sounded to bow down, she refused.
I watched her clean the floor of our home as she feared it being put into foreclosure, moaning prayers in the Spirit. I saw her rock back and forth during pre-service prayer and worship as the words of acceptance, affirmation, and embrace cut through the lies about her hair, skin, and body. The radio only played one station – AM 1370. Not because the dial didn’t work but because no other station did the work these songs accomplished every day. This is what loving God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength looks like. This is prayer without ceasing lived out. When the Enemy is always at your door waiting for an opportunity to devour you, you take every opportunity to encounter the Risen Jesus.
Thus, her survival was resistance, her thriving a revolutionary act, and the bearing of her children for flourishing and not labor is, at best, a threat to the status quo and, at worst, the latest volley in war against Manifest Destiny.
Unlike Nat Turner, though no less revolutionary, the weapon of choice for her and so many is, was, and will be our songs. These songs are not in our mother tongues, so when our mommas sing them other folks just don’t understand, but mommas’ babies do. These songs tell us who God is, who we are in Him and in the world. They tell us where freedom is, how to get there, who free is with, who to watch out for, and how to stay free.
These were the gifts that I was given before I realized I would need them. Black Praise—the lament, the shouts, the organ, the ad libs, the moans, the testimony, all of it—informed, reoriented, and liberated my mind, body and spirit from the oppression that would meet me before I left the womb. This Black Praise, when in full bloom, is beautifully unrestrained and unapologetic. It refuses to be constrained or contaminated by the snares that seek to dominate, dismiss, and destroy us. This praise liberates us and others. Our fully incorporated liberation is precisely why Black choirs are called in like angels to usher pained communities out of their devastation with song, preaching and prayer. This reality is society’s acknowledgment of its own systemic racism. Because if in the face of rape, abuse, violence, discrimination and institutionalized brutality, Black women can sing sincere praise, then whoever is within earshot can make it through whatever is before them.
Black praise, which also includes the preaching, prayer and discipleship, is us being ourselves before God and others without shame or fear. This freedom is infectious and spreads like fire upon those in its wake. It is for this reason, Black preachers—male and female—must be tempered by the powers that be because a free Black person is an invitation for others to praise, and therefore be free too. And not to seek freedom to perform Black praise, but to praise like Creator God has gifted and shaped them.
This rich black soil is where I was planted and because of it, I am fruitful bearing the fruits of the spirit for my daughters to reap, the same way Ma was fruitful for me. So that one day they can sing me to Glory and then when the chariot swings low for them, they can follow me across that narrow sea.
Jonathan Walton is the author of Twelve Lies that Hold America Captive, an editor of Keeping the Faith: Reflections on Christianity and Politics, and a partner at KTF Press. He works in campus ministry as a Senior Resource Specialist and lives in New York City. Jonathan has a BA from Columbia University in Creative Writing and an MA in the Study of the Americas from City College of New York.
This entry is part of our blog series “Rooted: Elders, Ancestors, and Collective Memory”. As BIPOC communities, our faith has been deeply formed by the experiences of our people. Our communities have developed ways of knowing and understanding God through suffering, lament, joy, and hope. Our stories, narratives, and faith practices developed over generations are rooted in context, cultural values, and the struggle for justice. Let’s learn from one another and develop a collective memory that leads to a prophetic imagination.
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