Preaching to the Choir

(written July 2017)

“I feel most colored when I am thrown against a stark, white background.” ~Zora Neale Hurston


I’ve grown wary of the expression “in a class all by oneself.”

I grew up hearing it, learning it, experiencing it, but as a good thing.

“To be in a class by yourself,” my father would tell me, “is to fly high. You are at the top of the ladder that everyone else is working so hard to climb. You are your own league.”

That became my goal. I realized it was possible when I got my first straight-A report in 6th grade. It was also the first time I had ever been evaluated by the letter-grading system—as opposed to the primary number scale they used in elementary school—and I was surprised to have done so well. The rush of success was unlike anything I had ever felt, and I did everything I could just so I might feel it again. It was like taking a running leap off the side of a cliff and soaring for just a few milliseconds, right before gravity takes over. If the sky was my limit, then I wanted it to be a little speck below me as I shot toward the sun.

But on the first day of college, I literally found myself in a class, but all by myself.

Washington and Lee University is a small, private liberal arts college located in the heart of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. It is named for two of its most important leaders and benefactors; George Washington, whose donation would eventually help the school grow in opportunity and influence, and the Confederate General Robert E. Lee, who served as its President right after the Civil War ended. In its early years, the prestigious school was only accessible to white gentlemen. African American students were eventually granted admission for various courses and programs, as were women, much later. The first two undergraduate degrees earned by African American students were awarded in 1972. The school officially went co-ed in 1985, and the first degrees to be earned by women were awarded in 1987. But even now, the school is infamous for being a Southern PWI (Predominantly White Institution), which is exactly the type of school that even the highest achieving black students try to avoid at all costs.

Long story short, change does not come easily to Washington and Lee.

That first day of school was the hardest, because I realized that this was where trying to be in a class by myself had gotten me. I had gotten into one of the highest ranked schools in the country—one with a mediocre 3% average of Black/African American students per graduating class.

No one had warned me that it was going to be this lonely at the top of the ladder.

As a French major and Creative Writing minor, I was usually the only person of color in all of my classes. It didn’t get any easier—I just managed to get used to it. I spoke up only a little, worked a lot, and found that it was much easier to talk to my professors in a one-on-one setting. Whenever the topic of racial relations came up—which was often, unfortunately—I kept my head down and my mouth shut. I pretended I didn’t see the side-long glances that my classmates would often shoot my way. I had to bite my tongue whenever my professors would say something that irked me, because I didn’t want to explain myself. If I said something, I would be setting myself up for the question “Are you sure you’re not overreacting?” No, you’re not sure, my self-doubt bullied my waning self-confidence. So, shut up and don’t make it worse. And like everyone else, I remained silent. I tried to ignore my own blackness.

By my third year, I decided that I’d had enough. I had earned my spot at this school, which meant that I had every right to speak my mind as a member of the student body.  I could not afford to quietly go through my four years and leave it up to someone else to do the talking. Not when each incoming class could barely boast the 3% demographic of Black students. Not when a local KKK chapter—one that had been pretty quiet until that point—had started leaving fliers and self-advertisements on the doorsteps of houses only a few streets away from W&L’s main campus. Not when the school itself had been built and maintained by people who looked like me, people who bore my blackness. Silence was no longer an option, because change itself is not silent.

Still, my new resolve aside, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for the choir incident.

I grew up singing and playing all kinds of church music. My parents taught me to speak by teaching me hymns. By age 3, I was singing gospel songs and spirituals in the children’s choir of our a local African American church in which my father served as one of the interim pastors. I played classic hymns and contemporary worship songs as part of my piano and viola lessons.

But if I had to pick a favorite genre, it would have to be the African American spirituals. I loved singing the low, rich notes that were unique to the gospel-based spiritual, and how the same notes could become so much darker and richer when sung in the verses that guided the slaves to freedom on the Underground Railroad. I loved the hope that lied beneath the lines of the work songs that had been made up to make the field work more bearable. Whenever I sang these songs, it felt like I could connect to the people who had written them.

I joined Cantatrici, Washington and Lee’s women’s choir during my sophomore year because I needed a break from everything. Officially, I sought refuge from the endless stack of French philosophy that I had to read for French 283. Unofficially, though, I knew the music would be “safe.” Cantatrici was mostly known for performing beautiful, classical pieces and the occasional classic hymn. I was one of only two or three Black students in the whole choir, which was more than even I was used to. Still, race is probably the last thing anyone thinks of when they’re singing Lacrimosa from Mozart’s Requiem, and that was perfect for me. I got to be slightly less noticeable for a few hours every week, and the music we sang was so universal that I knew no one else really noticed it, either.

So, in the fall term of my junior year, when it was announced that we would be singing African American spirituals for our upcoming concert, it felt as though someone had set fire to two of the last safe spaces that I had left. Not only would everyone in the audience be staring at ME as they tried not to think about the brutal racial history behind the three selections, but I had to sing some of my favorite songs, from a genre of which I was so proud, alongside people who probably knew nothing about it.

I was suddenly too aware of the fact that there were only three Black women—myself included—singing Wade in the Water, which was one of my absolute favorite spirituals. I was also too aware of the fact that there were no Black men singing in the glee club’s arrangement of Hammer Song, which happens to be one of the oldest spirituals on record. My blood boiled when we started sight-reading Follow the Drinking Gourd, and I heard someone whisper that they didn’t know what the ‘Drinking Gourd’ was. I had to remind myself that not everyone has had the same history lessons as I did. But the more we sang, the more difficult that was to remember.

In order to perform the pieces the “right way,” the student conductor told us to sing with less of our minds and instead with more of our souls. “Remember that these are hopeful pieces, but they’re not the same light, upbeat songs that you’re used to,” she told us one day. “They’re work songs, so your tone needs to be darker and heavier. Try to sound more like you’re tired, labored, or enslaved…”

I flinched. Had she really just said that? What’s worse is that I quickly looked around to make sure no one had seen my reaction. My skin seemed to burn, both on my body and in the back of my mind. Despite everything, I was ashamed for wanting to scream. For wanting to hide.

I knew that the other Black women in the choir, both of whom sang near me, were just as uncomfortable. But the last thing that any of us wanted to do was say something. We didn’t want to call attention to ourselves.

But one afternoon, on the day we started rehearsing Follow the Drinking Gourd with the percussion, I heard the clang-clang of literal chains on the wooden floor, accompanying the beat of the drums.

It took all of my strength not to walk off that stage and out the door.

I looked to my left, at the Black friend who stood near me. She was shaking her head, subtly yet furiously, as she sang the words that already were almost too painful to sing. At the end of the rehearsal hour, she pulled me aside, eyes flashing. “I really feel like I should say something,” she whispered.  “But I don’t want to do it alone. Will you go with me?”

I agreed with her completely, but I knew that wanting to speak up and actually doing so are wildly different. I knew that doing so would be ‘making it about race’ or ‘pulling the race card’ or whatever trivializing expression that people used whenever a Black person speaks up and addresses their discomfort, which is what I had spent most of my life trying not to do. But as I stood there, trying to choose between fight or flight, my friend called the head conductor over and started to speak. And, against my own fear, so did I.

As it turned out, our conductor knew exactly what we were going to say. He’d expected it, and apologized for not having acted on it sooner. He promised to put some time aside during our next rehearsal for a group discussion about what it really meant to sing these spirituals, and that he would do the same for the audience on the night of the concert. He planned to discuss as much as he could; the history behind the African American Spiritual, the meanings behind our three selections, and the significance of the chains-as-percussion that would accompany us during the final piece.  If we were willing, he would also allow my friend and I to say a few words, so that we could speak to our own friends and peers about how it felt to be a black student that had to sing these songs in front of what would likely be a predominantly white audience.

I was grateful that he understood why we were upset, but I still resented the fact that I had to explain it at all, yet again. I was angry that no one seemed to understand how I felt unless I made a point of saying something. A large portion of my academic career at W&L had been spent trying to educate my friends and classmates about what it feels like to be Black woman at a predominantly white school that is located in a region that literally fought for the right to say that it owned people like me. A smaller portion had been spent trying to convince myself that I had truly earned my place here through my own achievements, and that I had not been accepted to merely add to the ‘Black/African American’ slice of the demographics chart. The smallest portion had been spent working toward my French degree, motivated only by the hope that the real world would be more diverse and inclusive than that university.

In the days that followed, I mulled over whether I should share these feelings with the rest of the choir during the group discussion. Some of the men and women with whom I sang were also my friends outside of the auditorium, and I didn’t want to spoil that somehow. Still, when I told some of my other white friends from school about the whole thing, most of them asked me what the big deal was. When I told some of my Black friends, both from school and back home, they were just as angry as I was. Some of my friends were upset because they knew what I was going through or had gone through something similar.  They were annoyed that I had to be the one to say something because they were used to settings where it was much easier to speak up. But, for the sake of the friends who didn’t fully understand my situation, I knew what I had to do.

During the discussion, when it was my turn to speak, I did so as honestly as I could.

I said it wasn’t easy to have to be the only person of color in all of my classes except choir. I told my classmates about what it felt like to over-analyze every little thing that other students and professors said, wondering if that remark was actually offensive or if I had simply read too far into it. I shared the shame of expecting everyone to think that I’m overreacting whenever I disagree with something—and the doubled shame of probably being the only person who actually feels that way, because there are always too few Black people in the room at W&L.

“As for the spirituals,” I continued, “I grew up singing these songs, but I also learned the history behind them. I know that everyone else doesn’t have the same experiences as I do, so it’s not your fault if you don’t know a lot of the history. But it hurts to watch these songs turn into performances, when that’s not what they are. I really want to sing them in a way that will honor the people who wrote them, so that I can do right by them. And I’d appreciate it if anyone who might not be familiar with the history could keep that in mind.”

I didn’t know if my words had had any impact, nor did I know if the head conductor’s pre-concert speech would impact anyone in the audience at all.

I knew that the concert would be just as hard to sit through as those few rehearsals.

I knew that I would never feel as aware of my color as I did on stage that night.

I knew that hearing the chains would always feel like someone was pushing a knife further into my heart.

But nevertheless, I knew that I had done what I could to make my own voice heard.

The Performance


Concert nights were always my favorite part of being in any musical ensemble. Cantatrici concerts at W&L are always so much fun because I got to put on extra makeup and the over-the-top performance dress. Socializing with friends and getting goosebumps when we warmed up our voices for the night. We’d finally go out onto the stage, arrange ourselves beneath the bright stage lights, and turn our over-rehearsed songs into real music.

That night was different.

I needed to get through the concert as quickly as I possibly could.

I hadn’t told my parents about the whole chains situation yet, mostly because I just wasn’t sure how. I’d warned my sister, though, because I knew she would be the one to pull up the Livestream feed in our living room for everyone to see. She was just as sad as I was.

The concert started normally, just as we’d rehearsed. We lined up behind and around the audience so that we could march onto the stage as we sang. As much as I loved the first two pieces, I sang almost mechanically, with no emotion. I knew what was coming next.

After the first round of applause, our conductor launched into the same speech that he’d given us during the all-choir discussion we’d had a few days before. I can’t quote him, but I know what he said. I also know what he didn’t say.

He touched on the troubling slave history that had yielded Washington and Lee, but he did not mention the degree to which that history is still painfully present for students like me.

He touched on the rich history of the African American spiritual and how we must try to honor that legacy. He did not mention the fine line that separates the veneration and the tokenization of slave culture. A line that presents itself whenever spirituals are performed. A line that we were standing on.

He explained that the chains-as-percussion in Follow the Drinking Gourd were supposed to symbolize the captivity that the slaves tried to escape, and that it persists through the song to emulate the slave catchers’ pursuit. To give context to Wade in the Water, he went into a troubling story about the fact that many of the Union soldiers themselves didn’t actually believe that slaves should be free. Some even went so far as to purposely leave runaways behind at rivers and creeks—places where they knew the slaves could not follow because they could not swim. The slaves would often jump in after them, risking their lives for the chance to be free rather than staying behind to face inevitable capture. Most of them drowned. Very few survived.

When I first learned Wade in the Water in church all those years ago, I was told that it was a written to tell the story of Moses, when he parted the Red Sea for the Israelites as they escaped the Egyptians. It was supposed to be based on a story of faith and hope and how God will see you through. Now I’m not sure of which interpretation to believe.

With that, the student conductor took her place in front of us and raised her arms. We took a collective breath, waited for her to drop the first down-beat, and formed our first few notes:

Wade in the water,
Wade in the water, children!
Wade in the water.
God’s gonna trouble the water.

I have never sung so hard in my life.

I was not a degree louder than I should have been. But I poured my whole soul into every word. I felt my face mold to reflect the pain and sadness that I felt in my gut. I pushed the sound out, around a growing lump in my throat.

The piece was completely a cappella, and I could also feel the power coming from the women around me. I knew we sounded good, but that was not the goal. Not for me.

I needed us to sound right.

I needed every word to somehow reach the people who had created it, wherever their spirits were. My words had originally been their words, and now I was giving them back. These songs were for them. Not the audience.

I ignored the applause and steeled myself for the next piece, for the chains. I could feel the invisible knife that hovered just above my heart, waiting to plunge at the first clang.

When we began, I sang so hard that it felt like my guts had flipped themselves inside out.

“Singing is supposed to feed your soul,” our conductor always told us. That was the only time in my life that singing has wrung me dry.

Keep on travelin’ that muddy road to freedom.
Step by step, keep a-travelin’ on.
Keep on travelin’ that muddy road to freedom.
Step by step, keep a-travelin’ on.
You’ve got to follow, follow the Drinkin’ Gourd
Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd.

Each clang-clang in the background hurt more than the last. The final beat, which was just the chains by themselves, felt so jagged and sharp that I almost cried out.

But I held it in, more for the sake of the performance than for myself.

The performance that my parents and friends and professors were watching, some entangled by their own sharp, jagged chains and others oblivious to the pain.

The performance that wouldn’t have been so striking if it had taken place in an African American church or in the choir of an HBCU. No one would have observed these songs as ‘just a performance,’ but as a celebration of the people who wrote them.

The performance that, despite all my efforts, most of the members of the audience would only see as just that, a front. A show that I still had to put on.

But I did it as boldly as I could, in the hopes that I could honor the creators of the songs that I sang.

 

 

6 Replies to “Preaching to the Choir”

  1. I always felt vastly uncomfortable singing these spirituals out-of-context and as a white student. There were concerts in which I had the solo in these pieces and I feel such guilt at taking part in the “performance” aspect. Even though I lived with black women as my roommates, I never really had the courage to ask them how they felt about the use of traditional spirituals by a predominantly white choir. They are such powerful pieces of music that it always struck me as a form of appropriation. But still, I am ashamed to say that I said nothing. I am especially shocked that the use of the chains continued after having discussed your concerns with the conductor. There is no way to justify such a disturbing sound from a musical perspective. That is disappointing. I have learned a lot from what you shared in this post; thank you.

    Like

  2. I am a W&L alum (2004) as well. I really appreciate you writing and sharing this. Your voice is so important and powerful. Thank you.

    Like

  3. Thank you for sharing your story. I was one of 3 black graduates in W&L’s class of 1988. I hope your experience there has made you stronger as it did for me. Please keep sharing your voice with the world.

    Like

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