Sacred World of Slaves Based Upon the Essay

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Sacred World of Slaves

Based upon the reading of Sacred World of Slaves explain 3 ways in which slaves used artistic expression (music, dance, narratives) to cope with being enslaved and move them in a direction of Liberation.

From slavery times, far more records about black spirituals have survived than for secular music, and the most common religious themes always involved freedom, an escape from bondage and Moses leading the children of Israel out of Egypt. Black slaves may have had the evangelical Protestant religion of their masters imposed on them for purposes on control, but they also appropriated it and made this religion their own -- and the black church was one of the very few institutions that they did control before recent times. In essence, black theology was always a version of liberation theology, compared to emphasis that white evangelicals placed on individual sin and personal salvation, and this is reflected in black religious music. Africans brought the banjo with them to America, along with other percussion and string instruments, and also quickly learned to play European guitars and violins, while the banjo became very common among lower-class whites.

Historians have always disagreed over how much African culture survived under slavery in the United States, especially compared to the West Indies and Latin America. Until recent times, most assumed that relatively little endured in North America, although W.E.B DuBois was a notable exception (Levine 3). West African cultures were not unified religiously, linguistically or politically yet they "shared a fundamental outlook toward the past, present, and future and common means of cultural expression" (Levine 4). Africans, Asians and Europeans all retained certain aspects of their home cultures, even though diluted in the United States over the generations, and West African culture survived through a process of interaction with Euro-Americans over three centuries.

Even slave owners and racists like Thomas Jefferson recognized a special African style of music and dance, and this was not simply based on stereotypes. African musical styles, with their emphasis on spontaneity, call and response, improvisation, and a strong relationship to dance have endured in the Americas up to the present. As in Africa, these styles assign "a central role to the spoken arts, encouraged and rewarded verbal improvisation, maintained the participative nature of their expressive culture," and were often used to mock and lampoon white masters and authority figures -- no matter whether they realized this or not (Levine 6). Slaves always sand to relieve the boredom of hard, routine labor and looked forward to church or Sundays or 'frolics' on holidays when they did not have to work. These were the few pleasures and escapes permitted to them in a life of drudgery and unpaid labor, where death was a welcome release. African dance was also very different from the "stiffly erect" European style, which the slaves often made fun of, and was also informal and improvised (Levine 16). Often these songs and dances also expressed the desire for freedom or running away, and the fear of being sold or families split apart (Levine 14). Slaves used music "in almost every conceivable setting for almost every possible purpose," from birth to weddings to death (Levine 15).

White observers before and during the Civil War, such as William Cullen Bryant and Thomas Wentworth Higginson, were more likely to write down black religious music than the secular or profane variety. Recording devices did not exist until the 1870s and 1880s, although in rural black communities in the South, many later recordings of spirituals certainly resembled those sung during slavery. For this reason, we have "long known far more about slave spirituals than about any other form of slave music," especially because white evangelicals disapproved of profane music (Levine 18). Slaves also used spirituals "to articulate many of their deepest feelings and certainties," even if these had to be carefully concealed from Southern whites through code words and substitution of lyrics (Levine 19). Despite the segregation in Southern churches and revival meetings during and after the slavery, white evangelicals were well aware of black religious singing and could not avoid being influenced by it. Above all else, black spirituals expressed a strong desire for freedom, nor just from individual sins and shortcomings but for the entire people, and often emphasized "Moses leading his people out of Egypt" far more than white church music (Levine 23). Their intensity of feeling and expression through dance, falling down and shaking, as well as the call and response style between the preacher and congregation, marked them as a "hybrid with a strong African base" and always an integral part of the psychological and sometimes physical resistance of slaves (Levine 24).

3. We had readings about integration of art and crossing over by Dan Charnas, based upon what Charnas wrote and what we discussed in the lectures what are the Pros / Cons of having Black Art crossover. Do you feel this is helpful or hurtful to the community?

John Lennon allegedly said once that 'before Elvis there was nothing', although he should have known better and probably did. Certainly he would have been aware of earlier rhythm and blues artists like Fats Domino, Little Richard and others long since forgotten, who always claimed -- with considerable justification -- that their music had been stolen by white artists and record companies in the 1950s. This type of appropriation was not new in American history, and had also happened with jazz and spirituals, as recognition and royalties ended up in the hands of whites far more often than with blacks who had originated the music in the first place. Swing music and the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s had appropriated and watered down black musical and dance styles for a white audience, but after 1945 these went into decline. This rapidly became the preferred music of the older generation, who still listened to Frank Sinatra, Dinah Shore, Lawrence Welk and the Mills Brothers, while lower class whites also listened to hillbilly and country and western music of Roy Acuff and Hank Williams.

Baby Boomers were the first generation to experience a prolonged adolescence, and because of the economic boom after 1945 had more disposable income to spend on consumption than any previous generation. Of course, this was true of white Boomers far more than blacks, who still lived in poverty and strictly segregated conditions into the 1960s. They were not the first generation of young whites to appropriate black music as their own, although no other managed to turn any musical form into as large and successful a business as rock and roll became. Black rhythm and blues music began to filter into white communities in the late-1940s and early-1950s, when white radio stations began to plat Fats Domino, Della Reese, Lloyd Price and Joe Turner, who first recorded songs like "Sweet Sixteen" and "Honey Hush" (Charnas 29). This new style became popular on jukeboxes and Top 40 stations picked it up, and the stage was set for "one of the most bizarre socio-cultural phenomena in American history" (Charnas 30).

Previous generations of whites had almost never heard black music directly, but only through white imitators, and this also became commonplace with rock and roll starting in 1955. America was still a completely segregated society after all, and young whites who heard black music often had to go out of their way to find it. This was less true in the South, however, despite its very rigid segregation and racial caste system. Poor white youth known as 'cats' and 'hipsters' began to appear in both rural and urban areas, and these were the first to hear black rhythm and blues. Among those who imitated this style were Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins and of course Elvis Presley, and younger whites who heard them in the 1950s "flouted the mores of a segregated society and become relatively 'Africanized' in their cultural expression," just like their later counterparts in the 1980s and 1990s who were attracted to the sound of the black ghettos (Charnas 33).

Alan Freed became the first white disc jockey to devote an entire radio show to black rhythm and blues, at WJW in Cleveland in 1950. He had gone to record shops in black neighborhoods where he heard the music of Della Reese, Ivory Joe Hunter and La Verne Baker, which he renamed rock and roll for his white audience. This term had appeared in rhythm and blues songs as early as the 1920s, and was a "slang reference to bodily movement," both during dancing and sex (Charnas 34). It also appeared in the lyrics of the 1948 song "Good Rockin' Tonight" and Billy Wood's "Sixty-Minute Man" in 1950. Naturally, many whites had no real sense of history or awareness that rock and roll came from black music, and was originally just another name for rhythm and blues -- and in the early years Freed used both terms interchangeably. He did not want his audience to make that…[continue]

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