The function of the spirituals in the African-American intellectual tradition is well-known, especially in the work of W.E.B. Du Bois and Alain Locke – for both, the spirituals work as a foundation to the tradition. The spirituals are an enigma. They represent content as both lyric and sound; indeed, the distinction between those two forms of content is thin, at most. More likely there is no real distinction. Frederick Douglass notes the profundity of the sorrow songs in Narrative when he halts his account of himself and writes:
While on their way, they would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness. They would compose and sing as they went along, consulting neither time nor tune. The thought that came up, came out – if not in the word, in the sound; – and as frequently in the one as in the other. They would sometimes sing the most pathetic sentiment in the most rapturous tone, and the most rapturous sentiment in the most pathetic tone.
And then Douglass adds:
I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do.
Du Bois’s final chapter to Souls of Black Folk contains the foundational statement of the importance of the sorrow songs as memory and wisdom (what Douglass made analogous to philosophy), especially when he writes:
The Music of Negro religion is that plaintive rhythmic melody, with its touching minor cadences, which, despite caricature and defilement, still remains the most original and beautiful expression of human life and longing yet born on American soil. Sprung from the African forests, where its counterpart can still be heard, it was adapted, changed, and intensified by the tragic soul-life of the slave, until, under the stress of law and whip, it became the one true expression of a people’s sorrow, despair, and hope.
The spirituals also play an important role in Baldwin’s conception of language. Black English, for Baldwin, is a composite of history and being. His elaboration of the origins of black English in slavery and its aftermath – survival and protection – shows the interconnection between history as cruelty and language as identity formation, but always without casting that language and identity formation as pathological. Rather, the insistence on the “sheer intelligence” of black English, a phrase he borrows from Toni Morrison, underscores the seriousness of vernacular expression both for the meaning of existence – the world-making force of language – and for cultural formation. Think, for example, of the short essay “Of the Sorrow Songs: The Cross of Redemption,” where Baldwin evokes the spirit of Du Bois and adds important depth to his understanding of language. He recalls the genealogy of black English, forged on the auction block, and then links language to musicality and music’s ability to transform the meaning of time. It is this temporal transformation that means everything. If time can mean something other than the transmission of abjection and pathology – something with which Fanon struggle mightily – then perhaps memory of the past, borne as it is by vernacular language and expressive culture, is a ghost that can be welcomed, rather than fled. A friend, rather than an enemy of the future. Baldwin writes:
It is out of this, and much more than this, that black American music springs. This music begins on the auction block.
Now, whoever is unable to face this – the auction block; whoever cannot see that that auction block is the demolition, by Europe, of all human standards: a demolition accomplished, furthermore, at that hour of the world’s history, in the name of ‘civilization’; whoever pretends that the slave mother does not weep, until this hour, for her slaughtered son, that the son does not weep for his slaughtered father; or whoever pretends that the white father did not, literally, and knowing what he was doing, hand, and burn, and castrate, his black son – whoever cannot face this can never pay the price for the ‘beat’ which is key to music, and the key to life.
Music is our witness, and our ally. The ‘beat’ is the confession which recognizes, changes, and conquers time.
Then, history becomes a garment we can wear, and share, and not a cloak in which to hide; and time becomes a friend. (124)
Musicality is critical for both functions of vernacular. In turning to the particularity of the spirituals for theorizing musicality, sound, and culture, Baldwin marks his approach to language as distinctively African-American – gaining that small bit of distance from visions of diasporic unity and generalized racial identity. That is, as we will see later, the conquest of time, which makes time a friend, speaks to the particularly African-American ghost as it is carried by the sound and form of speaking and expression. While one could argue that this relation to a ghost in sound is characteristic of orality in multiple traditions across the black Americas, Baldwin’s claim is not concerned with a shared morphology or “aural syntax,” as it were, but instead with how the specifically African-American experience of the auction block, folded into the black church and the spirituals, founds an expressive medium that marks this place with this memory and this culture. With that specificity, Baldwin is able to articulate a kind of counter-nationalism – a sense of home, really – that works against the pan-African current of the time in black Atlantic theory, as well as, more locally for Baldwin, against the cultural nationalism of the Nation of Islam and related movements. Fanon’s claim that to speak a language means inhabiting a whole world then comes back to Baldwin, but retooled with an affirmation of – rather than distance from – vernacular cultural forms. This affirmation, which makes for an intense defense and elaboration of black English in all its aspects, sees the truth in Fanon’s claim that language has a history and that such history determines how identity is made (or unmade) in acts of expression (personal, interpersonal, and cultural), and yet, because Baldwin does not see abjection in the history carried by vernacular forms, Fanon’s insight is able to work as a productive account of black culture, and so not just critique and testimony to alienation. The spirituals are history and memory in sound and word. That history and memory make a certain language. And that language makes a certain sense of home, not only “no matter or despite the brutality and pain,” but also because “sheer intelligence” emerges from brutality and pain. This is the ghost in language that, for Baldwin, makes saying yes to life possible.