Black Spirituals as Poetry and ResistanceHistorians in the News
tags: African American history, oral history, music, gospel, Spirituals
Ten years ago, I worked as a researcher, conducting oral-history interviews for a project with the Weeksville Heritage Center. Weeksville is an extraordinary museum in central Brooklyn dedicated to the history of the free Black community that was founded there in 1838, when a Black stevedore named James Weeks first purchased the property. This occurred eleven years after Emancipation in New York, as Black residents organized to buy land in order to qualify to vote and build Black political power throughout the borough. Over one hundred years later, in 1968, the neighborhood organized again to preserve the last architectural remnants of the community, successfully fending off city efforts to destroy it during a campaign for urban renewal. The site has been a place of so many triumphs and reversals of history that it felt as though someone made it up. In a way, many people had — it was the culmination of the hopes and dreams of fugitives for freedom across hundreds of years. Part of my job as a researcher was to talk to those who had fought to preserve this history — ordinary Brooklynites who had done the extraordinary. Up until that point, I’d had the good fortune of mostly working at Black-history museums; at Weeksville, I felt I was directly in contact with the past.
Many of the people I interviewed were members or descendants of the Great Migration, the movement of more than six million Black Americans from the rural South to the country’s Northeast, Midwest and West beginning in 1916. These were people in their 60s, 70s and 80s. They or their parents had come to New York City in the first wave of migration, before World War II. This particular section of Brooklyn, then, was still so connected to history that certain blocks could trace their lineage to particular sections of North Carolina, Virginia and Georgia. Sometimes someone would say, “I was different growing up, because we came from South Carolina.”
Despite this, they were all united around a certain understanding. During my oral-history sessions, when I asked an elder about a person they were talking about, I would say gracelessly, “So, when did they die?” There would be a pause in the conversation — an intake of breath from whomever I’d posed the question to — as if I had reached out and pinched them. My boss, a much more skilled oral historian than I, would gently correct me: “When did they pass?” The conversation would then resume. When we spoke to white historians about the work we were doing — documenting the history of a community-led historic preservation project — we used the word “died” interchangeably. There was never the same pause.
THIS OBSERVATION TOOK on an even deeper meaning for me this past year. Black death is everywhere — we are dying of Covid at disproportionate rates and our deaths at the hands of police continue, despite the protests against them this past summer. More pressing is the callousness with which those in charge greet our deaths. As soon as the statistics on who was most likely to die of Covid became plain, it felt as if our former president, our Congress and many of our former and current governors had a distinct disinterest in doing anything to stop this plague. I have read the theorists who have pointed out that it has always been this way, that this country’s economy is in fact predicated on Black deaths. But it is one thing to read Ruthie Wilson Gilmore’s description of racism as “the state-sanctioned or extralegal production and exploitation of group-differentiated vulnerability to premature death,” which appears in her 2007 book “Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California.” It is quite another to see it enacted in real time, on real people; to read the memorial threads on Twitter and the posts on Instagram for the young mothers and fathers, the grandmothers and grandfathers, the teenagers — all lost to this matrix of state violence, a public health crisis and the prison industrial complex. There is a bruise spread across our communities that aches, that cannot be encompassed — and that is disrespected — by the finality of a word like “died.” “Died” ignores how one actually experiences the loss of a loved one or ones — the way they become no longer flesh but memory, the way they still exist in ritual and place, the way you look for them in the gestures and voices of their children and grandchildren.