Nashville, Tennessee, Fisk University
By all rights, this oughta be a pretty miserable Christmas. There’s no money for coal, we’ve eaten enough cheap beef that I swear I’m part cow, and the whole freedman’s school is probably headed toward collapse in a year or two.
But I got chocolate tonight. Actual chocolate, can you believe it? Oranges too. And so the world doesn’t seem so bad after all. Good ol’ Mr. Spence was feeling generous tonight, after we sang for him and his wife and some rich white folks at a Christmas social they had.
Mr. White—that’s George White, school treasurer, music instructor, and the tallest man at Fisk University, you can’t miss him—is starting up a choir. A cantata, he calls it, where we’re going to sing songs the proper way just to prove we can. I’m the star tenor, of course. Only because bossy Maggie Porter can only sing one part at once, though. I swear if she could do more, she’d take over soprano, tenor, bass, and director besides!
Mr. White’s got grand plans for some kind of fundraising tour. As if Mr. Spence would let him get away with that. Another one of his crazy schemes that’ll never take off, like as not. But it got us to put together a decent program for the school’s social, so that’s something, anyhow. Afterward, Mr. White let us into the kitchen for some sweets, then rushed on back to meet and greet with donors and such. So there we were, a dozen of us young people, all on our own.
And everybody knows that’s when the real singing starts.
Now, I’ve got nothing against that white music. Some of the songs, hymns and things, they’re real nice. But they’re missing a little something, something that’s in the songs we learned before the War, when we were still slaves. Those, we only sing when it’s just us about.
Not like we’re ashamed of them or anything. Well, some of us are, maybe. They don’t have proper grammar and such like they’re teaching us in school. Mostly, though, it’s because they’re too special. Private. Not the thing for concert halls…but just right for the Fisk University kitchen on Christmas Eve.
Some call them spirituals because folks took the words straight out of the Bible. Hardly a one could read a Scripture if you put a book in front of them, and they wouldn’t admit it if they could, that being illegal and all. But some slaves got dragged to the fly-buzzed Negro gallery of their masters’ churches every Sunday, and they heard enough. (more…)