The Spirituals and The Blues Book Review The book, The Spirituals and the Blues, by James H. Cone, illustrates how the slave spirituals and the blues reflected the struggle for black survival under the harsh reality of slavery and segregation. The spirituals are historical songs which speak out about the rupture of black lives in a religious sense, telling us about people in a land of bondage, and what they did to stay united and somehow fight back. The blues are somewhat different from in the spirituals in that they depict the secular aspect of black life during times of oppression and the capacity to survive. James H. Cones portrayal of how the spirituals and the blues aided blacks through times of hardship and adversity has very few flaws and informs the reader greatly about the importance of music in the lives of African-Americans. The author aims to both examine the spirituals and blues as cultural expressions of black people and to reflect on both the theological and sociological implications of these songs.
James H. Cone was born on August 5, 1938 in Fordyce, Arkansas. He attended three small colleges, including a theological seminary, before receiving his Masters and Ph. D. from the prestigious Northwestern University. Cone is married and has two children. He has held membership to many prominent boards and organizations including the National Committee of Black Churchman (member of board of directors), American Academy of Religion, Congress of African Peoples, and Black Methodists for Church Renewal. His career includes being a professor of religion and theology at Philander Smith College, Adrian College, and Union Theological Seminary, where he now teaches. James H. Cone is now an American clergyman and author.
Cone achieved his greatest acclaim in 1969 with the ground-breaking book, Black Theology and Black Power. This book attracted a great deal of attention due to its defense of th black power movement from a Christian point of view. He has since written many theological works including Risks of Faith, where he provides vital insights into American realities and the possibilities for American theology. Cone has been the Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminar in New York City since 1977.
Cones The Spirituals and the Blues is split into two distinctive sections, one which discusses the importance and impact of the spirituals and one which discusses that of the blues. The author starts out by describing the harsh situation slaves were put in and how the black experience in America is a history of servitude and resistance, of survival in the land of death. The spirituals are the historical songs which tell us what the slaves did to hold themselves together and to fight back against their oppressors. In both Africa and America, music was directly related to daily life and was an expression of the community view of the world and its existence in it. The central theological concept, which is the prime religious factor, in the black spirituals is the divine liberation of the oppressed from slavery.
Further, the theological assumption of black slave religion as expressed in the spirituals was that slavery contradicts God, and therefore, God will liberate black people. This factor came from the fact that many blacks believed in Jesus, and therefore, believed that He could save them from the oppression of slavery because of his death and resurrection. The fact that the theme of divine liberation was present in the slave songs is supported by three main assertions: the biblical literalism of the blacks forced them to accept the white viewpoints that implied Gods approval of slavery, the black songs were derived from white meeting songs and reflected the "white" meaning of divine liberation as freeing one from sin (not slavery), and that the spirituals do not contain "clear references to the desire for freedom". The extent of suffering which the slaves endured could have altered their faith in God. However, the black slaves investigations of the absurdities of human existence was concrete, and it was done within the context of the community of faith. They did not wonder whether God is just and right, but instead whether the pain of the world would cause them to lose faith in the word of God.
One of the major sorrows which the slaves went through was more of the loss of the community than the actual physical brutality of slavery. This is why most of the spirituals focused on "going home" to be reunited with their families which had been broken through slavery. Although black slaves feared death, regarding it as the opposite of life and therefore evil, they also accepted the inevitability of death, because they believed in Jesus resurrection and also that death was not ultimate. The author also conveys the fact that references to "heaven" not only referred to a "transcendent reality" beyond time, but also to earthly places that blacks regarded as lands of freedom. These places include Africa, Canada, and the northern United States. They believed that life did not end with death, because they thought that God would rectify the wrongs against black people and this hope in a radically new future was defined the spirituals in two distinct ways: language about heaven as a different sort of place after death and language about the "last days".
In spirituals, heaven was the place for the mourner, the despised, the rejected, and most importantly, the black. The spirituals, however, were not the only types of songs which blacks adopted as a solution to the problem of black suffering. The blues represent the secular dimension of black experience, meaning they are "worldly" songs which tell us about the blacks suffering and surviving while being oppressed. They are secular in the sense that they "confine their attention solely to the immediate and affirm the bodily expression of black soul". Most believe that the blues began to take form in the late 1800's, but it is widely agreed that the spirit and mood of the blues stretch well into the slavery days. The blues are closely related to the "slave secular", which are non-religious and express the skepticism of blacks who could not take white preachers religious faith seriously.
The blues do not reject God, but rather ignore God by accepting the joys and sorrows of life. The biggest difference between the spirituals and the blues is that just as strongly religious the spirituals are, the blues are worldly. Another important distinction between the spirituals and the blues is that the blues grounds black hope in history, not in a plea for a better life after death. The author tells us that the blues can best be defined as an artistic response to the chaos of life combining art and life, poetry and experience, and the symbolic and the real. They describe the reality of black suffering without seeking to devise solutions for the problem of absurdity and, put simply, recognize that blacks have been "hurt and scared" by the brutalities of white society. The Spirituals and the Blues is a very well-written and informative book.
One strength is the fact that the author shows distinct differences between two types of songs which, for the most part, served the same purpose: reflecting the struggle for black survival under the harsh reality of slavery and segregation. The central theme in the black spirituals is the divine liberation of the oppressed from slavery, whereas the blues attempt to "carve out" a significant existence in a very trying situation. The blues had their foundation built upon historical experience and the fact that if it is lived and encountered, then it is real. One of the most convincing tools used by Cone throughout the book are the excerpts of several spirituals and blues used to better illustrate what role these songs played in the black community. Another convincing tool Cone uses throughout are responses from musical experts of different races to these rich, creative songs somehow discovered by "these half-barbarous people".
Although many whites recognized the musical creativity of these songs, their own cultural experience often precluded their encounters with these deeper levels of human experience reflected in the spirituals and the blues. James H. Cones explanation of how these types of music were accepted by different races, use of excerpts, and conveyance of the different foundations upon which these types of music were built help to illustrate both similarities and differences which can be found between the spirituals and the blues. The Spirituals and the Blues is a very well-written book, but as is the case with most books, does have its weaknesses. One weakness I observed is that the section of the book which talks about the blues is very small in proportion to that which talks about the spirituals. The spirituals do have a longer, more extensive history, but it does not seem that this should reflect such a large proportion of the book. The only other weakness which I found the book to have is that the author somewhat contradicted himself, in my view, when it comes to defining the blues.
In his "Concluding Reflection", Cone tries to unite the spirituals and the blues and states that the two types of music should not be regarded as one being sacred "and the other secular". Earlier, however, Cone explained how blacks held God in such high esteem and this was the foundation upon which the spirituals were built and also talks about how blues could be classified as "a secular spiritual". His points can still be easily understood by the reader, but I feel that he nonetheless contradicts himself while making these statements. Overall, I thought the book was very enlightening when it came to the point of revealing the central theme and foundation of these two distinct but also similar types of songs. The spirituals were built on a steadfast belief in God, while the blues ignored God and accepted the joys and sorrows of life.
Although they were somewhat different, both partake of the same black experience in the United States. The spirituals and the blues both aided blacks through times of severe hardship and suffering. It was interesting to me to find out how even through oppression, blacks who were considered "believers" and those who were considered "non-believers" remained faithful to the fact that one day, they would beat their oppressors and situation. I liked the book most when it came to the point of identifying that the spirituals and the blues are not songs of despair or defeated people, but represent one of the greatest triumphs of a peoples in the history of the world.