The Spirituals and the Blues by James H Cone

The Spirituals and the Blues by James H ConeSummary: A explication of the theological roots of spirituals and the blues. A good example of why White seminary students need to be reading Black and other authors of Color. 

Over the past couple years there have been several minor controversies in US seminaries about assigned texts. Masters Seminary (started by John MacArthur) about a year ago had a former student write about the fact that he had not read a single book by a Black author during his seminary studies. That prompted a response by another former student that was (is?) a staff person at the seminary. The response includes this quote:

“I don’t mean to be dismissive of their contribution, but African-American Christians are a small portion built upon the main foundation, that just so happens to be, according to God’s providence, a white, Western European/English one.”

A more recent controversy came up because in the context of a NY Times article about racism in the church, an SBC seminary professor talked about assigning James H Cone and that created calls for the professor to resign, which prompted this response from him. It is yet another example of the systemic problems within the Evangelical church that is ignorant about non-White culture and because of that lack of cultural understanding and a lack of good history, perpetuates a belief in White cultural superiority as the quote above does.

I first read James H Cone during my seminary years almost 25 years ago. But within the past couple years I have read four of Cone’s books and continue to think that White Evangelicals need to grapple with the theological contributions of Black and other theologians outside of the White Evangelical space. I am continually surprised that the case needs to be made for this, but at the same time, I know that personally it is easy to fall into reading the same White, mostly male, authors. This is part of why I have been attempting to keep my reading to no more than 1/3 White authors this year. It takes attention because it is easy to fall into reading what others around me are reading or reading what is most recently on sale, or the new thing that everyone is talking about. And that is probably a White guy.

All of that long introduction brings me to Cone’s The Spirituals and the Blues. You cannot read more than a few pages in any of Cone’s books without finding a reference to music. Someday I would like to put together playlists to accompany each of Cone’s books that would put the original songs in order so that readers can hear the songs in full context as they read.

The Spirituals and the Blues is a short theological book that takes seriously the historical context of the music that has shaped the Black church and then theologically explicates the themes of the music. This is a brief book, only about 150 pages.

Cone places the Spirituals in historical context. The theology of the music was related to the culture and context of the time.

“The essence of antebellum black religion was the emphasis on the somebodiness of black slaves. The content of the black preacher’s message stressed the essential worth of their person. “You are created in God’s image. You are not slaves, you are not `niggers’; you are God’s children.”36 Because religion defined the somebodiness of their being, black slaves could retain a sense of the dignity of their person even though they were treated as things.”

I have been very slowly reading Fleming Rutledge’s Cruxifixction and she gave me some language that is similar to what Cone is talks about here. Rutledge talks about sin in two ways, the sin of the individual, which is important and does separate us from God, but also ‘Capital S Sin’ which is what she suggests is mostly what Paul is talking about when he talks about sin, the ‘Principalities and Powers’ that Christ defeated with his death and resurrection. This is an area where I do believe that absence of Black theology and a good theology of suffering has harmed White Evangelical theology. For Cone sin and Satan matter:

Satan is not merely an abstract metaphysical evil unrelated to social and political affairs; he represents the concrete presence of evil in an society. That was why exorcisms were central in the ministry of Jesus. The casting out of demons was an attack upon Satan because Jesus was setting people’s minds free for the Kingdom which was present in his ministry. To be free from Satan meant to be free for Jesus, who was God making Iiberation a historical reality. Anyone who was not for the Kingdom, as present in the liberating work of Jesus, was automatically for Satan, who stood for enslavement.

Part of what is important in Cone is how he deals with historical reality of White sin.

Howard Thurman’s explanation is closer to the truth. He contends that the slaves had been so ruthlessly treated as things by white masters that blacks soon learned to expect nothing but evil from white people. “The fact was that the slave owner was regarded as one outside the pale of moral and ethical responsibility…. Nothing could be expected from him but gross evil—he was in terms of morality— amoral.”

That may feel too strong for many White readers, but Cone has plenty of evidence, such as:

Slave catechisms were written to insure that the message of black inferiority and divinely ordained white domination would be instilled in the slaves. Q. What did God make you for? A. To make a crop. Q. What is the meaning of “Thou shalt not commit adultery”? A. To serve our heavenly Father, and our earthly master, obey our overseer, and not steal anything.

The end result was that the spirituals are evidence that, “…enslaved blacks believed that there was an omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient power at work in the world who was on the side of the oppressed and downtrodden.” Which is something that is still controversial in White Evangelical theology.

The majority of the book is about Spirituals, but the Blues also matter. Cone rejects common assumptions that the spirituals were the songs of the religious and the blues were the songs of those that rejected God. Instead he asserts that there were both historical separation and a change purpose.

The spirituals are slave songs, and they deal with historical realities that are pre-Civil war. They were created and sung by the group. The blues, while having some pre-Civil War roots, are essentially post-Civil war in consciousness. They reflect experiences that issued from Emancipation, the Reconstruction Period, and segregation laws. “The blues was conceived,” writes LeRoi Jones, “by freedmen and ex slaves — if not as a result of a personal or intellectual experience, at least as an emotional confirmation of, and reaction to, the way in which most Negroes were still forced to exist in the United States.” Also, in contrast to the group singing of the spirituals, the blues are intensely personal and individualistic.

As with many older books published by small publishers, The Spirituals and the Blues has a number of typos. Kindle has an option to report mistakes and typos (usually because of bad OCR). I reported about 3 dozen typos, most of them fairly minor. (Two of the quotes above had minor typos that I fixed.)

This probably isn’t the first book I would recommend if you are new to James H Cone, but I think it is probably the least theologically controversial of any of Cone’s books. If you are starting new, I would start with his recent memoir and then The Cross and the Lynching Tree, but I think this would be the third books that I recommend.

The Spirituals and the Blues by James H Cone Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: