Negro Spirituals 'Miracle' at Laney College

Working without compensation in blazing hot sunlight from "can't see in the morning to can't see at night" under the atrocious conditions of slavery in North America, enslaved Africans endured the most brutal treatment known to humanity.

To this day, the Black Church has remained a cornerstone institution in the African American community, with music being a major form of expression simultaneously capturing the Black Experience while releasing the frustrations of racial discrimination.

But African American life is not just about pain and suffering, it is more so a testament to the human spirit and the tenacity of African people.

On February 18, as a part of the Laney College World Music Series, the community got a glimpse of that spirit in musical form thanks to a free noontime performance by the Lucy Kinchin Chorale, a Negro Spiritual troupe led by long-time music professor Lucy Kinchin.

The Negro Spirituals emerged from the freedom struggle of enslaved Africans. Not only were the songs a source of inspiration and hope on plantations where slaves were overworked, and denied their basic needs, Kinchin said, but songs were later transformed into codes, or messages, to tell the enslaved how to get free.

"Things like shoes and decent clothing were basic needs that were also denied the slaves," Kinchin told the audience. "The spiritual 'Good News' says, "There are silver slippers, and long white robes in the heaven, I know."

Using a polyphonic, call-and-response hymnal, the "Good News" praised the coming chariot and the desire to not get left behind. The spirituals used biblical phrases that took on special meaning to enslaved Africans who identified with those enslaved in biblical scriptures.

Kinchin referenced freedom fighter Harriet Tubman, a formerly enslaved woman, known as "Moses," who freed hundreds of people through an informal network known as the "Underground Railroad." Tubman, also known as the "General," said she never once lost a passenger, adding, "I freed a thousand slaves and could have freed a thousand more if they only knew they were slaves."

According to Kinchin, the "Miracle" of the Negro Spiritual lies in the transformation power of the spirituals, not only as songs to endure slavery, but to fuel the escape from bondage.

"Prior to to the days of Harriet Tubman, spirituals gave the slaves the strength and the courage to endure the atrocities of their daily lives," Kinchin said. "However, the Miracle of the Negro Spiritual later becomes very clear and poignant due to the fact that these same songs became codes to aid the escape during the time of the Underground Railroad."

Kinchin cites "Steal away," "Sweet Chariot," and "Ride the Chariot" as examples of the codes shrouded in biblical references.

"[Negro Spirituals are] miraculous and I view [spirituals] as important as any other songs written," Kinchen concluded, referencing Marion Anderson, the 20th Century opera singer–who herself death discrimination–ended her performances with Negro Spirituals.

Since at least 2002, according to the Oakland Post, Kinchen has been on a mission to revive the spirituals. For more information about the World Music Series, contact the Laney College Music Department.

Video: YouTube User aheyheynow.

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