African American spirituality enriches

By Father Matthew Hawkins

Parochial vicar, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Benedict the Moor parishes, Pittsburgh

African American History Month is an opportunity for all Catholics to experience a deeper encounter with Christ from a unique perspective. The spiritual journey of African Americans demonstrates that it is wrong to claim that religion is merely “the opiate of the masses,” a tool to teach oppressed people to accept dehumanizing conditions.

For African Americans, religion has never been a “happy pill” to escape pain. Those who dismiss the spirituality of African Americans as joyous escapism fail to understand its essence. African American spirituality has always entailed entering into the pain, embracing the cross, and allowing oneself to be transformed by it.

Even before the blues, which was a secular African American expression of entering into the pain, the spirituals emerged as a musical form that lifted the community into mystical transcendence.  The spirituals communicated the dignity of the human person under dehumanizing conditions. As slavery destroyed the identity and culture of African Americans, and as family members were sold off, the spirituals spoke of steady perseverance in following the way of Christ.

The spiritual “Hold On” is one example. If taken literally, it appears to be a song about plowing a field. But its singers knew it to be a metaphor for liberation from enslavement that the authorities would not understand. On an even higher level, it was instruction in ascending the ladder of spiritual growth:

If you want to get to heaven, let me tell you how,
Just keep your hand on the Gospel plow
Keep your hand on that plow — hold on.
If that plow stays in your hand
It will land you straight in the promised land
Keep your hand on that plow — hold on.
Mary had a golden chain
Every link was Jesus’ name
Keep your hand on that plow — hold on.
Keep on climbing and don’t you tire
Every rung goes higher and higher
Keep your hand on that plow — hold on.

Every plowman understood the importance of holding onto the literal plow to avoid personal injury, but this plow was a response to Jesus’ invitation to ascend to spiritual perfection. It was about following Jesus without being distracted by transitory desires that would lead one to plow a crooked path toward participation one’s own dehumanization.

Parishioners at St. Charles Lwanga church in Pittsburgh raise their voices in song. (Jim Judkis photo)

For African Americans to survive, the community needed to be steadfast in faith. Thirty-seven years after emancipation, in the midst of forced segregation and widespread lynching, James Weldon Johnson wrote a hymn of hope. It acknowledged the community’s history of suffering, but  pointed to the steadfast faith under impossible circumstances that enabled the community to preserve its humanity.

The following verse describes a hope that was aborted before it could be born, only to be fulfilled  through the strength of faith passed on from one generation to the next. The lyrics of “Lift Every Voice And Sing” read:

Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chastening rod
felt in the days when hope unborn had died,
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet
come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

But even amid the hope of those partially fulfilled dreams, Johnson offered ominous words of caution for future generations:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way.
Thou who has by thy might
Led us into the light
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God,
where we met Thee.
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world,
we forget Thee.

In these lines, Johnson echoed the message in the spiritual “Hold On.” The message was clear: persevere in the faith that had carried African Americans through centuries of dehumanization and abuse. Do not get distracted by the empty promises of a world that reduces human beings to mere objects.

This message has been the bedrock of African American spirituality for 400 years and it has meaning for all people of faith who are trying to find their way in the 21st century.