Ralph Ellison stated in his book the Invisible Man: “When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” In my own journey to understand who am I and why am I here, I needed to know why the African American spirituals were such an intricate part of who I am. I set out to find the answers and what I found was, I had to first understand and know more about my enslaved ancestors who created this extraordinary music I love in the context of American history.
For those of us like myself whose ancestors were born in slavery in America, the African American spiritual songs hold within them the key to our African American cultural heritage and America’s oral history. The African American perspective is a vital and important part of American history that should not be segregated out of our educational curriculum but rather included as American history in it’s totality. When I realized that our history was not only invisible, it was disappearing I had to do something. The truth is, this is not a black story, this is not a white story. This is a “We The People” story. Whether our ancestors arrived here willingly or by force, those who survived the journey to the “New World” all knew they would have to depend on each other just to survive, let alone build a country. I couldn’t stand by and watch our oral history and the original sound and intention of the spirituals created by our slave brothers and sisters disappear from existence. That is why I asked then helped move the US Congress in 2007 to an unanimous vote to honor the slaves for their gifts to our nation with our deepest gratitude and respect and recognize the African American spiritual as a National Treasure.
This February after a performance of my one man show “A Path To Freedom” an African American couple came up to me and I’ll paraphrase what they said, “Thank you Mr. Earl, you made me feel like I belong here in America for the first time in my life. Our ancestors really were a vital and important part of American history, like you said in your show, without all of us, there would be none of us. Please keep telling your story, you changed our lives for the better”.
I believe it is vital to humanity and our diverse American culture to preserve and understand the African American spirituals because these songs are America’s oral history, and represent an entire group of citizens whose contributions to our nation are immeasurable in building a nation and have for far too long been invisible and discarded. Unless we unlock the true essence of the African American spirituals and learn about the slaves who created them, this vital part of American history could be lost forever.
Enjoy this video remembering our ancestors with love and gratitude.