Wading in Troubled Waters: The Tragic, Heroic, and Ongoing Myth of Black Creation By

Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey Preview for UU Collegium Presentation November 20, 2014, Oceanside, California

Hassaun Ali Jones‐Bey 

 



Preliminary Summary of Wading in Troubled Waters: The Tragic, Heroic, and Ongoing Myth of Black Creation (for presentation on November 20, 2014 at Unitarian Universalist Collegium, Oceanside, CA) A Black Man’s Prayer By Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey (aka Boundless Gratitude) Copyright 1999 Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey Dear God, If you have placed a curse on Pharaoh, please remove it. Because Old Pharaoh was an ancestor of mine. And the ones who taught me Pharaoh’s curse have bade me To leave the thoughts of their ancestral wrongs behind. If you have placed a curse on Satan, please remove it. They made their Satan black and strong to look like me. But they told me that they look you, which somehow doesn’t ring quite true. So please God, from their curses set me free. I have been taught to curse my ancestors and images. It seems to entertain the ones who love to curse. God please release me from their love of my destruction. Restore the peace and love you gave to me at birth. Please do not curse the ones who nurtured cursing in me. And do not curse those who enslaved me in their fields. Curse not even those who steal my soul with drugs, booze and brutality. They don’t need your curses, God. They need to heal. I call both You and me in names that sound so foreign. From foreign lands in many foreign tongues I call. Sometimes I wonder what I’m saying God. Does it make any sense? God, it’s Amazing Grace that I can speak at all. Free me from their need to curse and exploit scapegoats And from their cotton-pickin’ prison industries. Show me the Peaceful One these killers claim to worship. They think it’s them. I know it’s You. So set me free. Manifest this heart of mine with freedom, peace and love Unbounded by the curse of their deserted virtues. Help me walk Your way again and speak to all as if to friends. Your peace and healing are some things we all could use. Amen

Wading in Troubled Waters 

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When Melville J. Herskovits attacked the Eurocentric “myth” that African American culture could not be traced back to African roots, with his publication of The Myth of the Negro Past in the early 1940s, E. Franklin Frazier essentially counterattacked that African Americans were a totally new creation. So goes an oversimplified characterization of differences in perspective between Herskovits and Frazier that, due to a perhaps overly antagonistic portrayal, may unnecessarily polarize potential lines of inquiry and limit the potential development of interdisciplinary collaboration in Africana religious studies, according to Diane Stewart Diakite and Tracey Hucks (2013).

Diakite and Hucks have therefore expressed a need to find synergies between the two sides of the “debate,” and have pointed to the spirituals (which essentially afford a direct and continuous link between the African past and the African-American present) as a key area in which such synergies are likely to be found. Donald H. Matthews (1998), referenced by Diakite and Hucks, takes a major step in this direction but only mentions the Spiritual interpretations of Howard Thurman once and then only in passing. Diakite and Hucks’ brief overview article understandably does not mention Thurman at all. Onaje Woodbine, Pauline Jennett and Darryl Clay (2004) draw extensively on insights from Howard Thurman’s Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, to characterize the potential significance of spirituals as “Gods revelation to the African slave in America,” in a way that follows more along theological lines than towards the direction of Frazier and Herskovits.

This work focuses largely on Thurman’s above mentioned Spiritual interpretations, but does so also in the context of several of Thurman’s other works, with the specific intention of connecting

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Thurman’s insights directly into central issues of Africana religious studies, which in this case enables us to explore a potentially unifying perspective on the debate of Herskovits’ Myth of the Negro Past, which is re-conceptualized in the subtitle of this work as a “Tragic, Heroic, and Ongoing Myth of Black Creation.”

As Thurman points out in The Search for Common Ground, the creation myth of a people does not come from documentation of actual events but from memories of lost harmony. So on the one hand this work depart from Herskovits’ use of the word myth in the sense of a lie or untruth by talking about myth in terms of creation mythology as a memory of lost harmony--created by the people who it concerns rather than by others--that also gives the creators (or the descendants of the creators) of that myth a sense of contemporary purpose and direction. On the other hand, the subtitle of this work also accounts for Herskovits’ use of myth as a prefabrication or lie based on the fact that the modern concept of race, particularly of black and white races, is a Eurocentric invention that despite modern protestations of a post-racial society is perpetuated into the present through centuries-old institutions whose continued propagation of white supremacy, sadly, remains just as tragic, heroic, and ongoing as the efforts launched centuries ago by the creators of the spirituals to oppose their institutionalized dehumanization.

During a videotaped interview with Landrum Bolling, Thurman recollects realizing at a relatively young age that he couldn’t really see himself as a black person in America, anywhere in his experience of the books and sermons of Christianity (which was not surprising to hear after reading Thurman’s autobiography and other works). Thurman therefore began searching for

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a connection and eventually found it in the spirituals, which might also be understood as a scriptural text in the context of Vincent L. Wimbush’s work on “signifying scriptures” (2008). So this work tends to view religion, scripture, community, culture, mythology, and whatnot else as various optical components of a complex mirror system (rather than just a flat piece of silverbacked glass) in which we can ultimately see and evaluate in order to transform ourselves (individually and collectively) in an iterative fashion. In such terms, the differing perspectives of Herskovits and Frazier become not so much an issue of “scientific accuracy” but of evaluating functionality of various approaches for empowering people to see themselves in ways that ultimately enable self-evaluation and transformation--which will of course differ for different groups and individuals in different times and circumstances.

Studying and attempting to expand upon the works of Howard Thurman in these contexts involves reading him, not so much as the exceptional mystic but as a deeply insightful and sensitive “black” human being struggling tirelessly to chart a healing path through the withering onslaughts of Eurocentric life, and using the spirituals as primary guidance in doing so. This perhaps enables us to re-conceptualize the Herskovits and Frazier perspectives as complementary aspects of the same complex statement, or as head and tail of the same coin, if you will, in which Thurman’s insights enable us to see the coin.

To do so, this work characterizes the spirituals as a mythic beginning or myth of creation, in which we, as mentioned above, define “myth” in Thurman’s words as a memory of lost harmony with the purpose of finding present and future guidance. We also define “beginning” not in terms of a historical African past but in terms of the beginning of recoverable expressions of that lost

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harmony, which allow us to situate it within a Venn diagram overlap between Herskovits’ projected African beginnings and Frazier’s tangible African-American realities. We do so in this work by situating the spirituals as the formative documents that Thurman tells us they are for the rest of his work.

For instance, we look at the multi-religious and multi-ethnic aspirations in Thurman’s four-part essay The Creative Encounter as not just a problem of modern Western culture, but as a problem that enslaved Africans of many different ethnicities, cultures, languages, and religious persuasions sought to address as described by Thurman’s interpretation of “Wade in the Water.” The moral problem posed by Thurman’s interpretation of the “Blind Man” spiritual, of how a people might engage constructively with a society founded upon hating them, without falling prey to self-hatred, is thoroughly explored in Thurman’s Jesus and the Disinherited. Extending the Blind Man’s struggle beyond day to day issues of social engagement and into longer term aspirations for social change, we proceed through Thurman’s The Search for Common Ground while correlating each exploratory theme in that work with a congruent spiritual interpretation theme from Thurman’s Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death.

What we end up with is a story in eight parts, each part corresponding to one of the eight themes in Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death. Our eight-part story seems to offer common ground between Herskovits’ The Myth of the Negro Past and Frazier’s counterargument. We call our story “The Tragic, Heroic, and Ongoing Myth of Black Creation” for several reasons, of which two have been listed above. Thurman’s eight themes of spiritual interpretation are arranged along a diatonic musical scale with steps one and eight as tonic notes

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and steps two through seven corresponding to the six exploratory themes in Thurman’s Search for Common Ground. The eight steps of the story are arranged along the eight steps of a diatonic musical octave, in part to convey the process as one that is iterative and ongoing.

A key point that Thurman emphasizes repeatedly is that the spirituals speak to the entire human condition. And this point also finds a parallel in his other works, such as The Search for Common Ground, which focus on an ultimate need for developing overall human community. Slavery did not begin in the Americas or even with modernity. So the spirituals, when understood from the perspective of scripture, may represent the only scriptural tradition that speaks concretely rather than metaphorically from the perspective of the enslaved, and therefore makes no accommodation for either continuation of such an institution or for the various and diverse, yet always deceptive, “myths of black creation” that justify it, whether in ancient or modern forms.

It is essentially this sense of cosmic religious purpose in the spirituals as evidenced in Thurman’s other work and in their international cross-cultural appeal that might enable them to elevate Herskovits-Frazier out of the “debate” category and into the realm of both sides contributing complementary aspects to a cumulative development/evolution of humanity. We are no longer talking about struggling for black acceptance in a Eurocentric world, but literally addressing the disease state currently known as Eurocentric empire that insists upon exerting power over humanity while apparently lacking the capacity for fully appreciating what humanity might actually be.

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Finally, the deconstructive tasks of works such as the spirituals in alleviating the institutionalized blindness or opacities of powerfully oppressive modes of theological discourse need to be pursued in a way that includes, as Charles H. Long states, non-theological types. So another key focus of this creative presentation format is in facilitating the further creation of works that ultimately prove accessible, adaptable, and useful for individual and community healing. The ultimate purpose of this work is to make Thurman’s profound insights into the spirituals and into community—that provided inspiration to Martin Luther King, Jr. and other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s—readily accessible and clearly relevant for examination, inspiration, and adaptation in modern communities struggling with twenty-first-century issues.* This intention is not original but essentially continues the intention that Thurman offers in the General Introduction to Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death in which he succinctly but powerfully lays out his understanding of the meaning of the spirituals.

In that introduction he refers to a great demand for the essays in this combined book commencing in the 40s when it was first printed and continuing up and through the Civil Rights era: “Despite the primary secular and political character of the [Civil Rights] movement it found sources of inspiration and courage in the spiritual insights that had provided a windbreak for our forefathers against the brutalities of slavery and the establishing of a ground of hope undimmed by the contradictions that held them in tight embrace.” … initially these essays were addressed to a generation which tended to be ashamed of the Spirituals or who joined in the degrading and prostituting of the songs as a part of conventional minstrelsy or naïve amusement exploited and capitalized by white entertainers. The aim was to denigrate and to casually humiliate. It seemed urgent to me to explore the ground of hope and self-respect in the idiom of the Spirituals…. This seemed to me to make their timelessness more readily available to meet the new urgencies of that generation and, in my judgment, of subsequent generations.”

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In the academic year 1923-24, Thurman continues, “… during my senior year in college there was an incident that precipitated my reflection upon the meaning of the Spirituals.” The students at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges essentially refused to sing the spirituals, when instructed to do so by the director of music, to entertain a group of white visitors from the General Education Board. “The President of the college was embarrassed profoundly. In the evening, a special assembly was called and the entire student body was soundly reprimanded. The response to him was very simple. ‘We refuse to sing our songs to delight and amuse white people. The songs are ours and a part of the source of our own inspiration transmitted to us by our forefathers.” Finally, these essays are intimate and personal. They lay bare in my hand the gift which these songs, centuries old, are to my own spirit. For me, they are the watering places for my own spirit and have enabled me to affirm life when its denial would be more ego satisfying, to honor my own heritage and rejoice in it.

The musical octave steps are listed below focusing specifically on the moral issues and leaving out the social justice aspects for sake of brevity:

1. The vision – “Wade in the Water” (The Creative Encounter) 2. The challenge – “Blind Man” (disinherited from mutual interdependence and struggle with self-hatred) 3. The beginnings – “Motherless Child” (emotional challenge of natal separation) 4. The living structures – “Heaven! Heaven!” (intellectual challenge: separation from essential life structures of love and liberty—societal deception) 5. The sacrifice – “Jacob’s Ladder” (disciplined struggle and faithful sacrifice for the Prophet’s Dream within a deceptive social framework) 6. The realization – “Balm in Gilead” (bitter-sweet redemption in the common consciousness)

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7. The homecoming – “Deep River” (finding identity free of self-hatred in identification and fulfillment of life purpose: eternal life as opposed to infinite existence or relationship to any particular time or place. This is why ultimately Thurman tells us that The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death.) 8. The emancipation – “Slavery Chain” (resurrection/rebirth of the next generation into the next life cycle remembering the victories of the past and facing the new challenges in still-deceptive social framework: “Were You There?”)

*This work summarized above was originally intended to be the first in a series of investigations into the healing role that music, spirit, and community have historically played and continue to play throughout the worldwide African Diaspora, and on the African continent as well. Currently in manuscript completion stage, this work also provides the basis for a community building workshop currently led by the author at the San Quentin State Prison, as well as a three-credit Hilda Mason fellowship course led by the author during the current academic semester at Starr King School for the Ministry.

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Landrum Bolling, “Landrum Interviews Howard Thurman” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGX4-Wv9UD0 (You Tube: January 17, 2013), last viewed October 15, 2014 Dianne M. Stewart Diakite and Tracey E. Hucks, “Africana Studies: Toward a Transdisciplinary Agenda in an Emerging Field” Journal of Africana Religions (University Park, Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania, 2013) Vol. 1, No. 1, 28-77 Hassaun Ali Jones-Bey, “A Black Man’s Prayer” Words Upon the Waters: A Poetic Response to Hurricane Katrina by Bay Area Writers and Artists edited by Karla Brundage (Oakland, CA: Jukebox Press, 2006), 70 Charles H. Long, Significations: Signs, Symbols, and Images in the Interpretation of Religion (Aurora, Colorado: The Davies Group, 1986), 209-10 Howard Thurman, The Creative Encounter (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1972) Howard Thurman, Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1975) Howard Thurman, Jesus and the Disinherited (Boston: Beacon Press, 1976) Howard Thurman, The Search for Common Ground (Richmond, Indiana: Friends United Press, 1986) Vincent L. Wimbush, “TEXTureS, Gestures, Power: Orientation to Radical Excavation,” in Theorizing Scriptures: New Critical Orientations to a Cultural Phenomenon, edited by Vincent L. Wimbush (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2008), 1-20 Onate Woodbine, Pauline Jennet, and Darryl Clay, “Spirituals as God’s Revelation to the African Slave in America,” (Boston School of Theology Student Project, 2004), course website:  http://people.bu.edu/wwildman/courses/theo1/projects/2004_woodbine_onaje_and_clay_darryl_ and_jennett_pauline.pdf, last viewed October 15, 2014

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I call both You and me in names that sound so foreign. From foreign lands in many foreign tongues I call. Sometimes I wonder what I'm saying God. Does it make any sense? God, it's Amazing Grace that I can speak at all. Free me from their need to curse and exploit scapegoats. And from their cotton-pickin' prison industries.

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