I want to follow-up on Sonja’s excellent and thought-provoking discussion of the singing of “ethnic” hymns in white churches by adding a few thoughts of my own.

Before answering the question of whether predominantly white Christian communities should sing Negro Spirituals or the songs of any “other” racial or ethno-national group, we should first ask why such communities decide to sing these songs in the first place and what they are trying to achieve.  From what I can tell, it seems like such white Christians are uncomfortable with the “whiteness” of their particular church community and see the singing of “other” cultures’ songs as a way to counteract this whiteness.  Put another way, recognizing both that racism and culturally narrow constructions of Christianity are wrong, the singing of Negro Spirituals is thought to be a way both to honor “other” cultures and to overcome the hegemonically white Christianity of our past.

But, the problem is not cultural particularity–in other words, we wouldn’t feel uncomfortable with Korean Christians singing Korean songs, would we? And neither would we think there is anything wrong with black South African Christians singing Bantu songs. Similarly, I highly doubt that Indian Christians feel the need to sing Japanese or Mexican songs–I think this would strike most of us as silly, if not strange.

At this point in the conversation, many white people will think a version of the following: “well, if it’s not wrong for African-Americans or Koreans to sing culturally “black” or “Korean” songs, then what’s so bad about white people singing white songs?”  With this, many white people may even think themselves the victims of “reverse discrimination” or that they are being held to some sort of racial double standard.  As a result, we may think that the problem lies with the tendency of “other” racial and ethno-national communities to cling to their cultural particularity; for example, we may think that Mexican immigrants who “insist” on attending mass said in Spanish are being divisive or placing too much emphasis on cultural particularity at the expense of the universality of the church. (Forgotten in such thinking of course is the fact that masses said in English in the United States are just as culturally particular as those said in Spanish.)  Or, we may simply conclude that there is no problem and that this is a classic case of “political correctness” run amok.

However, I think that those of us who feel uncomfortable worshipping in predominently white parishes are correct.  But, before we can have any chance of coming up with a solution to the problem of white Christianity, we must first know why “white” Christianity is problematic in a way that Korean or Latino Christianity is not.

For starters, I don’t think we even know what “white” Christian music is.  Unlike other culturally particular forms of religious music, white Christian music seems nearly indefinable.

While I bet most United Statesians would be able to recognize distinctively African-American styles of Christian music, I don’t think we can say the same of white Christian music.  Surely, we can say that some forms of Christian music are sung almost exclusively by white people, but I don’t think that very many of us would want to define these genres as culturally “white” in the way that we define Negro Spirituals as culturally African-American.

Undoubtedly, some groups of white people–I am thinking specifically of white Appalachians–have a religious musical style that is their own and is recognizable in the way that African-American religious music is.  But that’s not really “white” music, because non-Appalachian whites would probably feel just as strange and sound just as bad singing Appalachian music as they do singing Negro Spirituals.

A second possibility is the type of post-Vatican II music sung at many Catholic churches in the United States.  I am also placing Christian contemporary music as sung by Steven Curtis Chapman and the like in this category.  Even though this music is sung almost exclusively by white people, I think most of us would feel uncomfortable saying that such music is more properly sung by a white woman from Minnesota than by the African-American or Latina woman sitting next to her, would we? (especially in the case of music used at Catholic masses).  In fact, in contrast to Negro Spirituals, which intend to express the historical faith journey of a discrete racial community, songs like “One Bread, One Body” are meant to express not the experiences of white U.S. Catholics, but of all Catholics everywhere.  In this sense, they are meant to be neutral and accessible to all.  This claim to neutrality and therefore inoffensive universality is of course both false (how can any music express a universal culture?) and therefore oppressive (one way to impose one’s culture on another people is to claim that it is universal).

A final candidate is what I am calling “high mass” music, aka classical music such as Mozart or Gregorian chant.  But, I don’t think this really works either.  Even though Mozart had “white” skin, would we say that his music express the historical experiences of white people in the way Negro Spirituals express that of black people?  Moreover,  does a half Italian, half-Irish American “white” person really share a history with Mozart in the way that a contemporary African-American person does with the composers of Negro Spirituals?  It is only through the devious social fiction of whiteness, which is an identity not of shared historical experience, but primarily of privilege and power, that an Irish-American can even consider claiming Mozart as her own.

Thus, while “blackness” is no less a social and historical construct than “whiteness,” “blackness” is held together by shared communal experiences of slavery, Jim Crow, and the ongoing reality of racism as well as resistance to and survival in the face of these realities.  On the other hand, in U.S. history, groups of people became white by differentiating themselves from and actively discriminating against black people in order to get privilege.  In other words, what holds “black” people together is much more real and much less problematic than what holds “white” people together.

In fact, I suspect that “classical” music can be plausibly considered white music only because of its status as supreme example of “high culture.”  That whiteness is a construct and mechanism of supremacy is evidenced by the fact that, in our culture, “high culture” (and this includes literature as well as what is considered “standard” English, for example) is, almost without exception, whatever “white” people do.  A correllary of this idea is that something will begin to be identified as “high culture” the moment it stops being something that African-American and Latino people and starts being something white people do: aka jazz, rock in roll, etc.

There is yet another reason why we can’t identify “classical” music as “white” music: most people who want to use “classical” music liturgically do so because they consider it to be universal.  For example, just yesterday, Pope Benedict claimed that the church should “give priority to Gregorian chant and to classical liturgical music” because, unlike other forms of music which are culturally specific, these forms of music “express the church’s universal culture.”

Ultimately, whiteness both claims not to have a culture and to be culture itself, depending on whichever best serves the end of white supremacy. (Note: I am not claiming that individual white people necessarily do this consciously.)

No wonder some white Christians are uncomfortable with “white” Christianity.

However, some will claim that, even granting this, it is still better for predominantly white Christian communities to sing Negro Spirituals than to carry on with business as usual.  Even if it’s not perfect, they argue, isn’t there something inherently subversive about the singing of black music by white people, especially if white communities are educated about the historical meaning of the songs they are singing?  To this, I would answer, “well, maybe.”

The danger is that singing Negro Spirituals as a way of purging white Christianity of its supremacizing whiteness is akin to taking the easy way out and is a form of cheap racial grace, to borrow from Bonhoeffer.   Moreover, U.S. history makes it pretty clear that there is little reason to expect that the singing of “black” music by “white” people will bring about an end to white supremacy.

First of all, we should recognize that, in the United States, white people have pretty much always sung “black” music.  In fact, excluding perhaps polka, which is relatively marginal to the U.S. culture, there is not a single style of music that white people currently listen to or create that does not have prominent roots in African-American music.  Heavy metal grew out of rock and roll, which, of course was originally black music.  Even country music (about as white as it gets) owes its start to African-American music.  What we now know as “country music” is a combination of English and Irish folk music, “old time music,” blues, gospel, and bluegrass; of those, only English and Irish folk music are without heavy African and/or African-American influence.  The problem then is not the singing of “black” music by “white” people but the fact that in a society that is racially segregated according to the perogatives of white supremacy, such cultural sampling and appropriation fails to foster true racial reconciliation and intimacy.  It might result in a new form of music, but it rarely if ever results in a new form of community.

This failure is perfectly exemplified by the story of the barbershop quartet.  To me, there is no music “whiter” than barbershop quartet.  When I think of barbershop quartet, I think of four very unhip men in their mid 60s wearing high waisted pants singing to an all white audience in a small town somewhere.  (Bonus points if you can spot all the racial code words and phrases I used in that last sentence).  However, few people know that the barbershop quartet was originally a style of music developed and performed by African-Americans in the closing decades of the 19th century.  Rather than bringing white people and black people together, however, the singing of barbershop quartet by white people now serves as just another marker both of whiteness and our racially segregated society.

Take any example and the outcome is the same: Elvis took black R&B and combined it with African-American influenced “rockabilly,” and, while the musical product was certainly seen as racially scandalous to many, today, love of Elvis, like barbershop quartet, is among the “whitest” things around.   The Beatles and the Rolling Stones similarly took black American music and made millions of white teens fall in love with it, but I bet there was little to no relationship between love of the Stones and willingness to live in integrated neighborhoods or to support affirmative action programs, for example.  In other words, getting white people to love black music is not a reliable way to get them to love black people or to give up the privilege and power necessary to foster true community with them.  The same can be said even of hip hop music: even though white suburban teenage boys are mega consumers of rap music, this hasn’t led to the development of a largescale movement to dismantle white supremacy among its white listeners–our nation remains just as segregated and nearly as unequal as it was when our nation’s airwaves were divided into white and black radio stations.

We can see this mirrored in the racialized realities of contemporary real estate. Especially in the northeast and midwest, it is almost impossible for black people and white people to share neigbhorhoods and schools.  As the history of red lining, terroristic violence committed by white people against black people seeking to integrate white neighborhoods, racially exclusionary zoning laws, and white flight demonstrate, it is still very, very hard for more than a very small number of black people to live in a white neighborhood.  In fact, studies show that white people will not tolerate their neighborhoods being more than a few percentage points black.  The converse is also true: almost without exception, the moving of large numbers of white people into black or brown neighborhoods is called not integration, but gentrification, as white people end up not sharing a neighbhorhood with people of color but displacing them by driving up rental prices to unattainable heights.  Notice that in each case, white people have a greater amount of power and therefore choice about where and with whom they want to live than do many people of color.

In other words, in a world warped by white supremacy, it will be very difficult, if not impossible, for us to deal with racial and cultural difference in a truly subversive (that is, counter white supremacist) way.  In other words, in such a world it is possible that both the refusal and the desire to sing and listen to “black” music will end up reifying the segregationist tendencies of white supremacy.

In the short term, I would argue that a white Christian who wishes to sing Negro Spirituals in church would be at reduced risk of distorting and/or co-opting African-American cultural forms for their own privatized spiritual pleasure and profit if she moved to a predominantly African-American neighborhood and became truly and humbly a part of an African-American religious community.  This also would force us to deal with the question of why so many white people “love” “black” music so much more than they “love” black people.

Given that racial segregation in the United States is not “natural” or morally neutral, but is instead the cause and consequence of pervasive white supremacy, we should be disturbed not by the singing of white songs in white churches, but by the fact that Christianity itself has been confined within the parameters set by the segregationist mentality of white supremacy.  In other words, no matter which denomination you visit or which part of the country you live in, in the United States, Christians are deeply racially segregated.   While the schism-worthy issue of today is whether or not gays and lesbians can be holy, in the 19th century, slavery and racism were reasons churches broke apart.   To name just a few examples: in 1845, the Southern Baptists (today the 2nd largest Christian denomination in the country) split from the Northern Baptists over the issue of slavery; in 1816, a group of African-Americans left the Methodist church in protest of the church’s racism in order to found the African Methodist Episcopal Church, or AME; and the Catholic church in the U.S., though never formally splitting over the issue, has often been similarly inhospitable to people of color.

We haven’t even begun to recover from this.

Rather than throwing our hands up in frustration and despair, we should turn our attentions to the real problem, which is white supremacy.  Thus, rather than placing a bandaid on our church’s racial wounds, maybe we should let the wound bleed for once so we are forced to see it and feel it for perhaps the first time.  Rather than seeking easy comfort in the ineffective solutions of the past, Christians seek a solution to the problem of “white” (supremacist) Christianity only after they have truly let themselves be confronted by the full magnitude of its effect on Christianity.

34 thoughts

  1. Thanks, Katie. This was excellent. It really challenged me a lot. What do you think about singing African-American songs in integrated congregations (to the extent that such congregations exist)? Also, something that is becoming more popular in the Episcopal Church is anti-racism training in parishes, especially for parish leadership. It’s a canonical requirement for anyone seeking ordination in this denomination. I’m not sure how this would affect hymn choice, but it might.

    1. Hey Michael!
      I’m no expert but it seems like singing African-American songs in integrated congregations would probably be ok. What do other people think?

      And I have been a student at two anti-racism trainings and they were both quite excellent–they challenged me a lot, so if the anti-racism trainings being used by the episcopal church were anything like the anti-racism trainings i went through, then I would say that is definitely a step in the right direction.

  2. Katie-

    Thanks for your thoughts, and also to Sonja for her thoughts earlier. I agree that the way parishes generally include “multicultural” music is problematic at best, and little more than a band aid for deeper issues of segregation. Yet, I wonder if there’s something to be said for the idea of lex orandi, lex credendi and liturgy, here? Could more racial and cultural diversity in our liturgy (and not merely music, but certainly ministers, readers, hospitality, etc) start a less integrated parish’s shift towards more integration?

    I’m thinking of my parish back at home, which has a large Filipino membership. For a long time we would have masses in Tagalog about once a month, but for the most part our weekly masses were exclusively in English. Then, our music director started including the Filipino choir more regularly in other liturgical events (first communion services, memorial masses, Triduum, etc), and other choirs began incorporating Tagalog music (I learned a couple of songs in the children’s choir, myself).

    For my part, as a junior high student at the time, I was oblivious to our parish diversity until this shift came in the music. Again, I agree that this is no substitute for really examining white privilege in a parish (and I admit, I’m not sure that my home parish is making those moves, as it’s been some years since I was in regular attendance), but I think the awareness that can be raised through prayer and liturgy might be a crucial first step for some.

    1. Hey Lorraine,
      Thanks for your sharing your thoughts.

      I agree with you that “integrated” music can help shift a congregation in the right direction. Emphasis on that it could. And a key point about your own parish: the singing of Tagalog music was in response to the presence of Tagalog-speaking people and therefore was a way to build actual community between two cultures not a replacement for such community. I think that’s my main point. 🙂

  3. This article has set off a string of ideas and feelings. Music is called universal language. Sacred music from whatever culture is a quest for God. God has given the musican,composer the yearning to express what the soul needs to say to God. People should not sing a song so much to “honor the culture or the people”-people sing religious songs to honor GOD. Regardless of skinc olor or interior sence of rythm,if the words and melody stir the community and it comes out of them as prayer, then as the Quakers say, “How Can we Keep from Singing?” OR if I am Catholic, am I not supposed to sing that?

    1. Hi Mary,
      WIth all due respect, I think we might just have to agree to disagree. I think you might be oversimplifying the issue a bit or discounting the way in which music is not just about honoring God but also about expressing a community’s concrete (and therefore) particular personhood before God.

      Also, the point of my post was not primarily about music but about how music can help and hinder our obedience to our identity as the body of Christ.

    2. Also, we were not so much talking about occasions on which predominantly white communities just spontaneously start singing Negro Spirituals but situations in which parishes choose to sing such songs as a more or less well-intentioned attempt to overcome white supremacy, which is a mortal threat to Christian faith and discipleship.

  4. My parish’s Sunday liturgy regularly includes Spanish (the Lamb of God acclamation), sometimes Greek (penitential rite), Latin showed up last weekend with a refrain for the Magnificat, as well as English. A Carribean Hallelujah is one of the highlights of the Easter Vigil that has people singing their way out the door. A connection with Lesotho has brought the music of that nation to us. Christmas carols come in French, Spanish, Latin, and English.

    For me, it is all a reminder that we belong to a world-wide church, that we ARE neighbors and HAVE neighbors near and far. It is at funerals where one type of music may appear more than another, but the parish has a broad repetoire and isn’t afraid to use it.

    1. Hi Shannon,
      Thanks for reading and thanks for commenting. I am really glad to hear that your parish’s music helps remind you that “we belong to a world-wide church” and that it serves to connect you with a community in Lesotho. That is cool.

      Thanks again for sharing.

    1. Thank you, Michael! I tried to say thank you on your blog, but I was having trouble posting my comment for some reason.

  5. Katie, thanks for a very thought provoking article. I write from the perspective of one with a graduate degree in liturgy whos serves on the liturgy committee of a parish which is very up front about its committment to being a multicultural community. This often takes the form of de facto separate communities under the aegis of one parish. On any Sunday you will find multiple masses in Spanish and English, a French liturgy, and periodically a Bangla liturgy. Particularly within the English community there are liturgies in a variety of styles: a Gospel mass on Saturday evening, a no music,”God’s Frozen People” mass and the ubiquitous “EOCR” style. However, each Sunday, and on high feasts, there is a liturgy which professes to be multicultural. Here one will find traditional spirituals, modern African American and Latino/a hymnody, African and Asian texts, and “traditional” English language “white folks music”. It is a difficult blend to make work, but we do our best. I think Lorraine’s insight that this conscious effort may reflect a sense of lex oradi lex credendi is a very helpful point.

    1. Hey Paul,
      Thanks for sharing your experience and expertise with us.

      Yea–I think what’s really cool about your parish is that it actually is multicultural. The singing of different types of music at these masses is a way of actually bringing different people together.

  6. Katie, why did you post this bluegrass Gospel video with your blog column? Are you saying this group is somehow racist for singing a medley of these three great songs which I enjoyed. The same group also has another medley on You Tube of All My Trials and Goin’ Home, an old African-American spiritual, and just like in this medley you posted they sang it well and tastefully. I think you do them a disservice by inference, calling them a “barbershop” quartet of mid-’60’s whatever.

    You made many salient points in your blog column and I truly enjoyed reading it. Just don’t understand the connection with a really good music video?

    Best Regards,

    Tom Mitchell
    Sequim, WA

    1. um no. i was not at all calling that group or any of the white groups i linked to “racist.” i was only giving evidence of the fact that much of what we consider “white” music has black roots.

      you totally misinterpreted me.

  7. There can be no comparison between the sorrow songs or Negro Spirituals and the desire of other ethnics to sing-along,however well meaning they may be. The spiritual core of the African-religious continuum is skewed when people sing these songs … on or off the polyrhythmic, African beat. Musically, the sound is altered and lacking in depths of understanding. Captive Africans were brought here as ‘spirit-filled’ people. That spirit has never been broken; it has only been shared, and were it not for the work songs, Sorrow Songs, Spirituals, we still be singing English madrigals and dancing the French minuet in this country!
    My wife and I live in a region of the south where we are the “integrators” of ‘white’ Episcopalian and Catholic congregations. We sing in an Episcopal Church choir where some refuse to sing Negro Spirituals. Others refuse to process down the aisle with either of us; the jockeying for position before the processional is a dead give-away that some care not to be the odd-man-out … to genuflect at the altar beside one of ‘us.’ One chap even made the attempt to humor me by boasting: “…as a cadet at the Citadel, we plebes were taught to turn southward when saying the Lord’s Prayer, because God’s word should not be spoken in a northward direction inhabited by the Union enemy. We want our country back, by God!”
    On high holy days, we attend mass at the Cathedral, and become invisible as Ralph Ellison’s central character. At the peace, we embrace one another Recently, a congregant across the aisle held up two fingers, an obvious throwback from the “peace-era ’60’s.”
    Ever-prayerful, we continue our spiritual journey to find a church home, in the midst of a split church community of Episcopalians, who bicker about the pro and con definitions of domestic partnership and family structures … ever mindful that the most segregated hours in America is Sunday morning between 8am-1pm. It wasn’t too long ago that ‘our people’ had to sit in the “crow’s nest” for worship services.
    We are not familiar with the black church experience, having grown up under the Catholic catechism of Vatican I in the northeaster USA in the 50’s & ’60’s. Sit in the wrong pew at a black church and the behavior of some willing to go beyond the limits of Christian charity can ruin the worship service and your religious mission in God’s house!
    By experience, we are left with the understanding that race is not an issue in other religions … only in the Christian church. Is that why Captain Blye in “Mutiny on the Bounty,” yelled out: “Christian dogs!” … referring to his naysayers, mutineers, and others not to be trusted in his kingdom of the high seas?

  8. You seem afraid that your faith offends black people. Most Christians worldwide need to hear the gospel sung in all parts of the world. Why not sing a negro spiritual hymn when churches today have become programmed. The idea of singing a Capella scares the millennial generation. They feel that racism still exists in churches. What about the need to believe that God through Africa fields many other angles of Christianity.

  9. Black American Spirituals may be sung by Caucasians but that is all it would be because the Spirituals can not be experienced by them. Spirituals were inspired by the attributes of the oppressors and housed under the banner of Christianity as a refuge or safety net to communicate their spirituality without being whipped, persecuted, beat, mocked, etc. Spirituality & Negro Spirituals are just that, not Christian…. everything we did and who we were before enslavement was Spiritual, not Christian.

  10. An interesting question is raised about singing Spirituals and the right to sing them, if one is not African-American. I believe we do know that hymnals of all denominations include notated Negro Spirituals to be sung by a general congregation. However, it has been my experience to sing in choirs in predominately white congregations where white congregants refuse to join in when these hymns are sung. My wife is an AGO supply organist for Catholic, Episcopal, Lutheran and United Methodist churches, making us ecumenical guests several Sundays a month. We live, sing and worship in Greater Charleston, SC churches. Geography may have some bearing on our frustrating episodes. On some Sundays, we are the only people of color. I have had Episcopalians refuse to process down the aisle beside me after the Introit. One woman refused to genuflect at the altar with me, after an Anthem offering. My sole baritone voice has lead the male section when the Communion hymn: “Let Us Break Bread Together” to my wife’s accompaniment. The other baritone in the chorus made it known he would not sing that song. These overt acts of derision and disdain affect our spiritual centering during Sunday worship. My wife’s role as a visiting minister of music and my vocal part in choral singing creates unsettling moments and bewilderment when we endure experiences of this kind by some southern Christians, who don’t believe we worship and sing praises to the same God.

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