Singing African American Spirituals in a Multicultural Context

Went to Fellowship Church this morning, which I’ve decided is my home church in San Francisco.  Even though it’s not Unitarian Universalist, it embodies the values of UUism, sometimes better than many UU congregations do.  Case in point, this morning I was late and walked up the stairs to the sanctuary while the first hymn was being sung.  It was “No More Auction Block for Me” (#154).  I had to laugh, remembering the first time I ever saw that song in our UU hymnal. I was visiting the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore along with Omi.  Omi is not a UU, is UU-friendly, but has had some less than favorable experiences with how our UU Euro-centric liberal culture approaches issues around racial diversity in general and African Americans specifically.  But since a mutual friend was preaching that weekend, she was there to see/support him. Sitting in the pew with me, randomly flipping thru our hymnal, she stopped - incredulous - at one song.  I looked over to see what the matter was and saw for the first time “No More Auction Block for Me.”  My eyes went wide and I held up my hands as if to disavow myself and repeatedly said, “I had no idea that was in there; this is the first time I’ve seen it in there; we never sing it.”  The idea of a predominantly Euro congregation singing “No More Auction Block for Me” was beyond mortifying.  In contrast, this Sunday morning at Fellowship Church, where the congregation is diverse but more African American than not, the song still felt uncomfortable *to me* but not mortifying.  Especially when Rev. Dr. Blake exhorted us to think of what it meant for formerly enslaved African Americans to be free of being sold as a commodity, free of the lash of the slave driver. 

And that was not the only time during today’s service where the contrast between Fellowship Church and UU encounters with Black spirituals would be evident.  The closing hymn of the service was “Wade in the Water”(#210).  This song was used extensively at All Souls DC when I first joined.  Only we didn’t sing the version in the hymnal. We sang it out of a printed insert and the words were printed as “Wade in duh wadduh.”  Being new to UUism and church and intentional multiculturalism, I didn’t think anything of it…until I invited a friend who happens to be Black to come to church with me and we happened to sing that song.  She was like “Why are they faking an accent?!”  And I was like, “Uh, I don’t know.”  I brought this up with the church’s right relationship committee and a mini controversy ensued between those who felt that it was more authentic to sing the song the way the words would have been pronounced at the time it was created and those who felt that such contrived accents, again in a predominantly Euro congregation, was…problematic. What I noticed was that no resolution happened but we sang the song far less than we used to.  Which is sad because it’s a beautiful song.  So singing it today at Fellowship, I couldn’t help but note that we sang the words “Wade in the Water” out of the hymnal as it is printed, with no contrived accent.  But before singing, Rev. Dr. Blake again put the words in context, explaining that when escaped slaves journeyed towards freedom they often had to cross rivers that were frightening, but the song promises that God would look over their safety by sending an angel to “trouble the water,” blessing it.  And I thought to myself that if the aim was to sing the song authentically, this way was so much more so.

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