African American Literature
And Preaching in the Black Church
Not unlike the preservation work of ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax, who
preserved generations of American folk music in the first half of the 20th
century, a number of African American poets and writers sought to do the
same with Black Preachers and the emblematic sermons. Two of the most
notable of these preservationists were Paul Laurence Dunbar and James Weldon
Dunbar was criticized for doing "dialect poetry" which preserved the
patterns of speech of self-taught, recently kidnapped peoples who spoke
scores of African languages and a few European as well. His "An Ante-Bellum
Sermon" preaches freedom and dignity in the re-telling of the Moses-Pharaoh
conflict. It is masterful and sly. Look it up: "I’m talklin’ ‘bout ouah
[sic] freedom in a Bible-istic way."
"God’s Trombones" is James Weldon Johnson’s 1927 masterpiece. He crafts
into "sermonic poems" seven of the iconic preachings of the Black church in
the Southern states. The ideas of authorship or of doing a sermon just
didn’t exist. Preachers borrowed liberally from each other, and just like
the unknown bards who created the spirituals, generations of preachers added
and subtracted, buffed and sanded, applied shellac and turpentine. And kept
on adapting perpetually. Johnson puts seven of these gems into the amber of
his poetry and the genius of the African Diaspora glows.
The sermonic poems include "The Creation," "Noah Built the Ark," "Go Down
Death," "The Prodigal Son," "The Crucifixion," "Let My People Go," and
"Judgment Day." At several Easter Vigils, I have substituted "The Creation"
for the familiar Genesis reading to help us hear that Scripture afresh. One
year, "Let My People Go" subbed for the Exodus at the Vigil, but although
it’s a splendid poem, it’s too long even for the Vigil, and is best used at
retreats. The still in print version features handsome woodcuts by Harlem
Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas.
Another Harlem Renaissance poet (who was the high school English teacher
of James Baldwin) is Countee Cullen, who wrote a number of Biblically based
poems, most notably "Simon of Cyrene," where he imagines what Simon, whom
the Black church adopts as an African, thought as he bore the cross; and
"Judas Iscariott," which imagines a big round table in heaven where Judas is
seated and forgiven. Both these poems can be quoted in whole or part to
enrich a preaching.
More contemporarily, Toni Morrison conjured a character in Beloved
named "Baby Suggs, holy" who preaches in the hush arbor called "The
Clearing" which was far away from ears of the slave overseers. She arouses
the drooping spirits of the assembled with a call to self love, and she
"offered up to them her great big heart." Baby Suggs, holy calls us to love.
Her preaching works on a retreat or where the scriptures dovetail.
Finally, another James Weldon Johnson poem – "Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing"
gives meaning packed phrases to use in preaching or intercessions or
prayers. I’ve used lines from the poem frequently in crafting Intercessions
for Black History Month (February) and Black Catholic History Month
(November). Here is a sampling:
"Stony the road we trod"
"Lift ev’ry voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,"
"Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met
Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget
The poem was written in 1900 for a special high school assembly in
Jacksonville, FL to honor Booker T. Washington’s visitation. In 1905,
Johnson’s brother John, a composer, added music. Within 15 years, it spread
so much in the Black community that the song became dubbed by the NAACP as
the "Black National Anthem". When I was pastor of an African American parish
and school in South Carolina, I made one of the graduation requirements
memorizing all 3 verses of the song, which is what the students’ elders
– Bruce Barnabas Schultz, O.P., Associate Pastor, Our Lady
of Lourdes, Atlanta, GA