Love and Theft: How the Appropriation of Negro Spirituals Taught America How to Sanitize Black Music

Radical historian, S. David, investigates the cruelty of what’s lost in the translation of black expression into white notation with the commercial rise of the negro spiritual & in the present day with hip-hop and techno.

When the Bohemian composer Antonín Dvořák arrived in New Jersey in September 1892 to take up the position as director of the National Conservatory of Music, he had never heard a Negro spiritual, though he had likely heard much about them. In an article appearing in the New York Herald in May of the next year, he would later proclaim them, “the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water.” He would further argue that a union of ballad and slave narrative enshrined a reemergent postbellum national spirit.  

It is ironic, then, that Dvořák was most likely referring to what he eventually had heard: not the spiritual, but its concert tradition counterpart—its “completed,” aesthetic form personified and popularized by George L. White’s 1871 spectacle tour presenting his Fisk Jubilee Singers. This was a performance which showcased, to mostly white American and European audiences, simply a modified and commodified Hegelian gyration, an authentic minstrel burlesque. Here, the slave songs, though sung with original lyrics, were arranged in radically different fashion: in tightly-harmonized choral structures, those characteristic of contemporary white Evangelical church hymns. 

“Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, Fisk Jubilee Singers (1915)

As notated transcriptions and lyrical in-dialect “translations” of Negro songs proliferated in the post-Civil War Reconstruction years, phonological deviations within the music itself emerged. The spirituals themselves were adapted by white ears and eyes: resubmitted, rearranged. These adaptations, writes the ethnomusicologist Ronald Radano in his paper “Denoting Difference: The Writing of the Slave Spirituals,” “ultimately amounted to little more than discursive fictions that offered a partial sampling of African American musical practices at a profound moment of cultural change.” They hardly bore resemblance to the originary spirituals, whose essence and form were eroded.

Amid a wider emergence of black music as a discursive object, the “ethno-sympathetic” efforts of post-abolitionist white Northerners would help rob a century-long tradition of its syncretic sacred mystery.  The conservatory gestures of these “neutral” actors would preclude the slave songs’ unique sociohistorical context and, with it, an unrestrained flavor of Negro expression—till then mostly free from the voyeuristic gaze of the white spectator—as Frederick Douglass dubbed them, “[with]in the circle.”  Early white collectors had thus, in the words of Steven Garabedian, “worked in the mode of condescension and exoticism, not revolution.”  Radano writes, “If the transcriptions were ‘but a faint shadow of the original … intonations and delicate variations [that] … cannot be reproduced on paper’, they nonetheless offered the image of an ancient encounter, of the witnessing of living vestiges of primordial sound.”  

By present day, the “primordial sound” to which Radano uneasily gestures is neither easily graspable nor communicable. But the forced aestheticization and elision of the Negro spiritual is yet instructive, revealing just how African Americans were—and continue to be—confronted with “difference” through incorporative gestures. (Here Radano writes, “It is through the idea of difference that black America would finally hear its cultural past, discerning the echoes of an ancestral world saturated with textually invented ‘Negro sound’.”)  It also shows how expressions of ostensible anti-racist “solidarity”—through collection, incorporation, and consumption—ultimately heighten and amplify difference. In some cases, this cultural process completely revises African American expression and experiences; in others, it simply writes Afro-Americans out of the process altogether.

This effect is compounded where suffering is concerned. Grief and despair, as expressed within and by Negro spirituals, were engendered by the condition(s) of institutional violence and state-endorsed terror, that is, by the very nature of chattel slavery. Essentially religious in nature, spirituals were lyrically populated with refashioned Christian themes and imagery, scriptural or otherwise. They often possessed a singular focus on ahistorical and apocryphal figures, their trials, tribulations, and sufferings. Thematically, these were compared to the grueling labor and suffering enslaved people endured on the Southern plantation or, alternately, embodied the enslaved person’s desire for freedom and salvation—in the present world or hereafter. 

Now, we, Black Americans, express grief and despair in no less certain terms: in protest and polemic, mourning—and mobilizing in the name of—lives claimed by the same trans-historical violence and terror. We dare to envision an Afro-future, a material hereafter in which Black lives do matter. Yet, through no fault of our own, it is the perceived specter of “oppositional black noise” that comes to speak to difference, to over-determined perceptions of a “pathologic” African-American experience/“condition.” It is one mere notches above a racialized “ghetto” tableau. As Radano writes, “to give excessive priority to […] racially determined forms is to perpetuate an interpretation of African-American expressive culture that is as constraining as it is enabling.” 

It stands that the vector between Afro-American suffering and consumption of Black figures of noise, though not a formal one, is arguably just as linear now as it was in the late 1860s. In her 2019 book Antiracism Inc., Felice Blake describes the initial vexation with which she and others met reactions to the 2016 U.S. presidential election. “I can’t wait to hear the music that comes out of this!” she recalls some saying at that fraught cultural moment. “These comments, I first thought, buried Black suffering under what often looks like exclusively consumer-cultural appreciation for Black expressivity,” she writes.  (She poses the provocative question,“in the era of the 45th U.S. president, are we awaiting the ‘sorrow songs’ of the new millennium?”)  

While the presidency of Donald J. Trump appears to be over, it is perhaps a glib understatement to note that the conditions precipitating its emergence have long been present—and will likely continue to be so for some time. Here, Blake reminds us of what James Baldwin wrote in 1955: that white Americans have historically been able to admire black music, in spite, or even because of, racist attitudes due to what he calls a “protective sentimentality.”  Predicated on difference, as well as conflated assumptions of Black inferiority—“narrow definitions of blackness as sexually pathological, cyclically impoverished, hopelessly criminal, and musically masterful”—this white “sentimentality” naturally limits complex understanding of African-American expression in general. 

Historically, these interpretations have connoted a racialized,“out-of-bounds” and untouchable state or place, one seemingly conjured without obvious predicate or relation to material (i.e., white) conditions. (Noting the “difficulty” of capturing the nuances of slave singing in Western notation, white figures like Fredericka Bremer, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, and Lucy McKim Garrison further remarked upon the slave songs’ “ability to communicate at the height of human emotion, charting realms beyond the access of whites.”)  These limited evaluations in turn work to “discipline and constrain” blackness and, in the case of music, inscribe white racialisms onto what Radano calls “the textualized body of black song”.  

While there is a risk of elevating song as a singular index of black expressivity, music is easily the culture’s most visible—and commercially viable—exponent. It is thus a prime example of the complicated cultural process by which blackness is incorporated—and then commercialized—all in ways that, simultaneously, contain and confine blackness within pre-existing socially-scripted racial codes and hierarchies.  In dialogue with Stuart Hall, Blake further points out that these appropriations “are not merely about capitalizing on cultural representations of blackness, but about creating an image of racial progress by commercializing Black difference.”  

There is perhaps no clearer contemporary analogue than hip-hop, a genre which remains an over-determined symbol of black opposition and thus a signal of racial difference. It is an easy axiom, one by which strategic “alliance” and “solidarity” can be established by whites without actually requiring anything of them besides commercial consumption. Techno, on the other hand, is rap music’s equal-opposite: a white-washed cultural product that exists largely parallel to other Diasporic forms. In particular, the process by which techno “became white” is strikingly reminiscent of the earlier transcription of the Negro spiritual and the resultant concert-tradition spiritual. Techno’s would-be apotheosis, then, recapitulates the re-“imagination” and remaking of Black music in European America’s own cultural image—all while using language and technology as tools of enforcement. This all occurs amid “paradoxical moods of praise and reproach, desire and disgust,” or what Eric Lott called “love and theft.” 

Whites of the North were drawn to the slave songs for several reasons.  Recent commentators point to a kind of (re-)emergent civic nationalism to explain some whites’ “sudden and surprisingly deep fascination with spirituals during the war years” as well as their concomitant desire to “preserve for an increasingly text-bound culture the songful ‘heart religion’ of black orality.” According to literary scholar John M. Picker, spirituals represented “a psychological stronghold against […] national disintegration” to which “white Americans were attracted […] during a time of national crisis.”  Radano himself suggests that the spiritual afforded “white Americans […] the means by which to construct a racially transcendent, national self-hood” because, once they had been written down, they separated black bodies from “the sounds themselves.” 

Cycles of conflict—cultural or otherwise—are pregnant in any historical moment. Yet the U.S. of the early 2020’s faces a time of serious national crisis not entirely incomparable to the “rupture” and discontinuity of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. As with the Negro spiritual before them, contemporary Black Diasporic forms like hip-hop and techno face different degrees of elision. This is partly in the service of extending consumer-cultural notions of continued social “progress.” Thus racial difference is a key to which understandings of national and dominant cultural self are unlocked. 

The Negro spiritual was a primarily social phenomenon and it died a uniquely social death. In The Negro in Virginia, a compilation of interviews collected from Henry Alsberg’s Federal Writers’ Project, a tableau is described.

When a slave died, the quarters became mourner’s row. Every one came quietly to pay his respects to the bereaved family. All night long friends would ‘set’ with the family and sing and chant over the body. ‘Used to comfort ‘em bes’ you could,’ says [former slave] Mariah Hines. ‘Wasn’t much said. People nowadays talk wid dey tongues; us slaves used to talk wid our hearts.’” 

We continue to talk with our hearts and sing with our minds. We may grieve the loss of our kin and comrades, but we know that history is rarely truly lost. The Afro-American genius in “transmuting trouble into song” speaks to the kinship values and social connections present and, indeed, necessary in the lives of enslaved people. 

Follow S. David @boyhominid on twitter & instagram

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