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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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Cone’s artful interpretation of the blues owes much to the existential cast of his theology. He cuts through the

sexual and personal-conflict imagery of the blues to characterize the songs. Charley Patton called those “mean

black moans” as poignant attempts by blacks after slavery to affirm their “somebodiness”


        Big Bill Broonzy                                                                                                                                                                                                                  James Cone



Books on Black Religion

The Negro and His Music (Locke) / The Spiritual and the Blues: An Interpretation (Cone) / Best Loved Spirituals  (Mahalia)

The Book of the American Negro Spirituals (Johnson) / American Negro Songs: Folk Songs and Spirituals (Work)

Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (Thurman)

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The Spiritual and the Blues: An Interpretation

By James H. Cone 


Black Affirmation Through Song

Reviewed by Cornish Rogers


At a time when some so-called black theologians are beginning to “universalize” their systems of thought (thereby reducing their dependence on a peculiarly black experimental base), James Cone continues to inform and illuminate his theology by exploring the common experiences of black people, as voiced in song and story. Cone’s belief that the black spirituals and blues are significant cultural and historical expressions of the black ethos has led him to examine, in this small volume, their sociological and theological implications.

Having made a cursory survey of what others have written about the spirituals, Cone scores critics who dismiss them as escapist songs based on white musical forms and white fundamentalist “pie-in-the-sky” theologies. He disagrees also with scholars who view the spirituals as political documents devoid of transcendent dimensions. He takes exception even to Howard Thurman’s thoroughgoing religious interpretation and suggests that Thurman does not go far enough toward acknowledging the serious theological content of spirituals. Cone contends that Benjamin May’ theological analysis reflects a too-narrow sociological viewpoint. In fact, only W.E.B. Du Bois’ views are accorded his unconditional approval.

Central to Cone’s own interpretation is his conviction that a very evident theme of liberation pervades the spirituals. “So far from being songs of passive resignation, the spirituals are black freedom songs which emphasize black liberation as consistent with divine revelation.” Through the skillful use of illustrations from the spirituals, he convincingly demonstrates that “the theological assumption of black slave religion as expressed in the spirituals was that slavery contradicts God, and he will therefore liberate black people.”

But, Cone adds, the spirituals do not provide a simplistic or escapist solution. Black suffering is faced honestly and realistically in the spirituals; there is no attempt to explain it away or to dismiss it as unimportant. Rather, these songs gave a theological perspective to suffering – as expressed, for example, in the line “I’m so glad that trouble don’t last always.” Cone likens the spirituals’ treatment of the problem of suffering to that of the Old Testament books of Job and Habbakuk. Christian hope, he says, “is a vision and promise for the poor, the sick and the weak.” In this regard he excoriates those white theologians who have promulgated a theology of hope based on “theological abstractions” rather than on the sufferings of the oppressed.

Cone’s artful interpretation of the blues owes much to the existential cast of his theology. He cuts through the sexual and personal-conflict imagery of the blues to characterize the songs. Charley Patton called those “mean black moans” as poignant attempts by blacks after slavery to affirm their “somebodiness” in the cauldron of a white racist society without pointing to a transcendent referent. These “secular spirituals,” according to Cone, “are about black life and the sheer earth and gut capacity to survive in an extreme situation of oppression.” Through songs notable for their beat and their utter truthfulness, the blues singers sought not to escape their world but to make black life bearable. Once, disputing the white racist myth that blacks are no more than animals, Big Bill (William Lee Conoley) Broonzy asked, “You never seen a mule sing, have you?”

In Cone’s view it is this affirmation of black existence through the power of song that connects the blues theologically with spirituals: “The blues tell us about a people who refused to accept the absurdity of white society. Black people rebelled artistically, and affirmed through ritual, pattern, and form that they were human beings.”

In summary, Cone sees the blues as the vehicle by which black people sought to deliver themselves through song from the oppressiveness of the existential moment; spirituals, on the other hand, promised liberation to blacks through the agency of the transcendent in their midst. This book represents another step in James Cone’s continuing search through black experience for a deeper explication of his black theology of liberation.

Source: Christian Century (September 20, 1972)

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 James H. Cone  Charles A. Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary, New York. His many books include  A Black Theology of Liberation; God of the Oppressed;  Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare and My Soul Looks Back

Bill Moyers and James Cone (Interview)  / A Conversation with James Cone

God of the Oppressed  / A Black Theology of Liberation  / For My People, Black Theology and the Black Church

Martin & Malcolm & America: A Dream or a Nightmare (1992)  / Black Theology and Black Power

Risks of Faith: The Emergence of a Black Theology of  Liberation, 1968-1998   /  The Spiritual and the Blues: An Interpretation

Black Theology: A Documentary History: Volume Two: 1980-1992  /  My Soul Looks Back

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Hands on the Freedom Plow

Personal Accounts by Women in SNCC

By Faith S. Holsaert, Martha Prescod Norman Noonan

Judy Richardson, Betty Garman Robinson, et al.

The book opens a window onto the organizing tradition of the Southern civil rights movement. That tradition, rooted in the courage and persistence of ordinary people, has been obscured by the characterization of the civil rights struggle as consisting primarily of protest marches. In rural Dawson, Ga., Carolyn Daniels housed SNCC workers organizing for voter registration, and whites retaliated by bombing her home. But at the end of a vivid depiction of this and other anti-black terrorist acts, she writes, in an apt summary of the grass-roots organizing that is the real explanation for civil rights victories, "We just kept going and going."

Organizing involved the kind of commitment and willingness to face risk that Penny Patch conveys in only a few short sentences describing covert nighttime meetings in plantation sharecropper shacks. Patch is white. But that did not lessen the fear or reduce the danger of remaining seated while poll watching in a country store as whites came in and out, giving her and her black co-worker menacing stares.

Full journalistic disclosure requires me to say that many of these women are friends and former comrades. But knowing the movement that we were all a part of also demands that I share my observation: While these pages look back, looking forward from them reveals that there are many useful lessons for today in the strength of these women.Charles E. Cobb Jr.

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1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

By Charles C. Mann

I’m a big fan of Charles Mann’s previous book 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, in which he provides a sweeping and provocative examination of North and South America prior to the arrival of Christopher Columbus. It’s exhaustively researched but so wonderfully written that it’s anything but exhausting to read. With his follow-up, 1493, Mann has taken it to a new, truly global level. Building on the groundbreaking work of Alfred Crosby (author of The Columbian Exchange and, I’m proud to say, a fellow Nantucketer), Mann has written nothing less than the story of our world: how a planet of what were once several autonomous continents is quickly becoming a single, “globalized” entity.

Mann not only talked to countless scientists and researchers; he visited the places he writes about, and as a consequence, the book has a marvelously wide-ranging yet personal feel as we follow Mann from one far-flung corner of the world to the next. And always, the prose is masterful. In telling the improbable story of how Spanish and Chinese cultures collided in the Philippines in the sixteenth century, he takes us to the island of Mindoro whose “southern coast consists of a number of small bays, one next to another like tooth marks in an apple.” We learn how the spread of malaria, the potato, tobacco, guano, rubber plants, and sugar cane have disrupted and convulsed the planet and will continue to do so until we are finally living on one integrated or at least close-to-integrated Earth. Whether or not the human instigators of all this remarkable change will survive the process they helped to initiate more than five hundred years ago remains, Mann suggests in this monumental and revelatory book, an open question.

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The Persistence of the Color Line

Racial Politics and the Obama Presidency

By Randall Kennedy

Among the best things about The Persistence of the Color Line is watching Mr. Kennedy hash through the positions about Mr. Obama staked out by black commentators on the left and right, from Stanley Crouch and Cornel West to Juan Williams and Tavis Smiley. He can be pointed. Noting the way Mr. Smiley consistently “voiced skepticism regarding whether blacks should back Obama” . . .

The finest chapter in The Persistence of the Color Line is so resonant, and so personal, it could nearly be the basis for a book of its own. That chapter is titled “Reverend Wright and My Father: Reflections on Blacks and Patriotism.”  Recalling some of the criticisms of America’s past made by Mr. Obama’s former pastor, Mr. Kennedy writes with feeling about his own father, who put each of his three of his children through Princeton but who “never forgave American society for its racist mistreatment of him and those whom he most loved.”  His father distrusted the police, who had frequently called him “boy,” and rejected patriotism. Mr. Kennedy’s father “relished Muhammad Ali’s quip that the Vietcong had never called him ‘nigger.’ ” The author places his father, and Mr. Wright, in sympathetic historical light.

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery / George Jackson  / Hurricane Carter

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 25 February 2012




Home  Turner-Cone Theology Index    Religion and Politics   Books in Review

Related files: Prince's The Rainbow Children    Blues as Secularized Spirituals  Black Struggle  The Spiritual and the Blues  Dialogue on Black Theology   A Black Theology of Liberation     

Blues as Secularized Spirituals  Blues Chant Hoodoo Revival   The Spiritual and the Blues    Living Legends   Listening to the Blues Is a Duty and Responsibility     Tell Me How Long Has the Essence Train Been Gone?

 Is God a White Racist   Death of the Black Church