Spirited away

The feet rose from the chorus, stepping on air and flew out of the stained-glass windows.

by Diana Fu

.A naked hum,
stretches her limbs
into the void

until its palms
press against
stained-glass windows.

She crescendos
to the sculpted ceiling
until cadences

burst forth from her chest
beckoning freedom
to make its debut.

Forgive me, readers, for transgressing the traditional boundaries of column-writing. I could not conceive of a different way to begin than with poetry. No other linguistic form could adequately capture my first sip of spiritual music.

The legendary Fisk Jubilee singers from Nashville, Tenn., stumbled into one of the bleakest of the bleak Minnesota winter nights. Yet their music, tumbling forth from the sacred walls of St. Mark’s Cathedral, lit the evening aflame.

Spirituals ‘ jubilees, they’re called. Or, “slave songs,” as the whites disparagingly termed them in the antebellum era. Whatever their name, they had the effect of incantations. The music stirring in my body, I could only attempt to imagine the very first jubilee singers, attired in their best formals, making their debut tour around the United States and Europe in 1871. The phenomenon of talented black singers touring the world must have provoked quite a sensation in the colonial era.

From their inception, spirituals were a way of subverting slave owners’ pedagogy of obedience which used the Bible to justify slavery. According to Wikipedia, spirituals served two purposes: easing the “boredom of daily tasks” and expressing “a yearning for freedom from bondage.” It is the latter that fascinates me.

“Wade in the waters Ö wade in the waters.” Wading toward freedom. I can see the calloused, chained feet wading through the waters, attempting to escape from slavery. Escape, but to where? Where was true freedom to be found? Certainly not in the north, not within U.S. borders, not on a bus, nor at the lunch counters.

I see those feet today, unclamped but crippled by a society that still is infected by the same virus that paralyzed it 200 years ago. Except this virus has mutated, become more insidious, adorned with words like affirmative action, multiculturalism and celebration of diversity. The feet rose from the chorus, stepping on air and flew out of the stained glass windows.

When asked what drew her to spirituals, jubilee singer Jihan Murray-Smith replied without hesitation, “They (spirituals) allow me to connect not only to God but also to my ancestors through music.” Connection. That seemed to be one of the central themes of the jubilee singers.

One outstanding attribute is that the conductor, Paul T. Kwami, doesn’t stand in front of the group. Instead, he hides himself in the shadows behind the music. I approached him about that. Kwami explained that one of the reasons is to allow the singers to connect directly with the audience through their eyes. I liked that. I felt we were talking, the singers and me.

Jubilee. The name comes from the Old Testament, a year that Hebrew law required the slaves to be set free. This seems especially apt for a University founded for former slaves. Since the very beginning, the Jubilee singers have been using their music to incite people to take action.

Music and activism seem to go hand in hand. I am reminded of a good friend who recently met with Bernice Johnson Reagan, the formidable black singer whose freedom songs moved many in the civil rights era.

As Black History Month draws to a close, I know the music won’t. There is too much life, too many wants, too many unfulfilled desires for the music to be quelled.

Diana Fu welcomes comments at [email protected].