We Can’t Change History, But Here’s What We Can Do

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I am really excited to share with you my passion for preserving a vital part of American history and cultural heritage that isn’t talked about very much – the slaves and the spirituals. The slaves, my beloved ancestors, are my ancestral heritage. It is a part of our history that is heavily laden with sigmas, guilt, pain, and the biggest of them all is FEAR that keeps us from knowing ourselves as what we truly are. Our diversity as a nation should be something we are proud of, not afraid of. Because we do not openly talk about and learn about our history from the perspective of all cultures in our diverse nation, we are being complacent, and irresponsible for what we are paying forward to generations not yet born. I just want to do my part, and share my culture with you, in hopes we will start sharing all our cultural diversities with love and gratitude with each other.

Today in part one of this two part blog post, we will look at a part of the slaves journey in America that details how and why the slaves created an original music and my own efforts to make their perspective of history more widely known. And why 142 years after slavery ended, in February 2007 the United States Congress, with their deepest gratitude and respect, honored the slaves for their enormous contribution to our nation, and recognized the African American Spiritual as a National Treasure.

As an adult, I began to research the music, to see if what I had been taught orally as a child could be found in books, I began to see a very discouraging pattern. The music and stories were scattered here and there and not kept as a historical collection. Unfortunately, most of the music & oral history created by the slaves has already been lost forever. That is why I created Saving Our Spiritual Roots, concert and blog.

I will never forget what Dr. Dorothy Height, President of the National Council of Negro Women told me the day after the Senate Resolution was submitted in the Senate hopper. After reading the legislation for the first time she looked me square in the eyes and said “ Calvin, I am so proud of you and that you are preserving the Negro spirituals, because if we don’t preserve them, it will be like we were never here.”

Her words haunted me, and were a daily reminder that I needed to work harder and smarter to push the legislation through the US Congress, and when we got that unanimous vote in both the House and Senate, her words even today continue to encourage me to tell the story of the slaves and their music in a time when spirituals and our cultural diversity are deemed unimportant to most Americans. I believe knowledge is power and will continue to honor my ancestors by sharing information about their lives and their secret and sacred music we call spirituals.

The spirituals are in fact an original musical art form. They were created by the slaves in America. What is the saying the greatest inventions are born out of necessity? The African people brought here to America were stripped of their language, their music and their sacred drums. Musicologists and scholars will all tell you there aren’t enough standard musical notes to accommodate the distinct sound of the spirituals. Nor does the original rhythm of the spirituals fit any standard pattern. It was all original. As an example there aren’t enough notes to account for the “slide” in a slaves voice which determined the intent and conviction of the song.

I want to make that distinction here, because many people think that the African American spiritual, which is also the foundation for the art forms of Blues, Jazz, and Gospel have an African rhythm. This is not true. A perfect example is if you listen to music created by the African slaves sent to the Islands or South America you will still hear the African drum beat present in their music. The reason for that is that in South America as well as the Islands, the African slaves were allowed to keep their drums and parts of their culture.

For the American slave the drums were not an option. Not only were the slaves in America stripped of the drums, as their masters recognized that they were able to communicate with the drums, therefore the drums were forbidden, the slaves were also stripped of their language, and culture. So how did they create a new original music?

Stay tuned for part 2 coming Wednesday April 15th, 2015…

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