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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 Johnson.

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 Thee,

Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee"

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 could do.

– Bruce Barnabas Schultz, O.P., Associate Pastor, Our Lady of Lourdes, Atlanta, GA

Book Review Archive

Just click on a book title below to read the review.
(The latest submissions are listed first.)

• Mark's Passion Narrative •
• Jesus: A Gospel Portrait •
• How I Found Life and Freedom on Death Row •
• Christ and the Spirit: Catholic Perspectives Through the Ages •
• The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church •
• A Joint Review •
• St. Dominic: A Story of a Preaching Friar •
• Moses in Pharaoh's House •
• ...and the Mountains Echoed •
• Behind the Beautiful Forevers •
• Preaching the Mystery of Faith: The Sunday Homily •
• The Rhythm of Being... •
• Remi De Roo - Chronicles of a Vatican II Bishop •
• Redeeming the Past •
• Abraham Joshua Heschel: Essential Writings •
• This Is Our Exile •
• Compassion: Loving Our Neighbor in and Age of Globalization •
• True and False Reform In the Church •
• Adult Faith •
• The Mystical Way In Everyday Life •
• Racial Justice and the Catholic Church •
• Let the Great World Spin •
• The Priesthood Of the Faithful •
• Living With Wisdom •
• Where the Pure Water Flows •
• Best Advice For Preaching •
• We Speak the Word Of the Lord •
• Great World Religions: Islam •
• Of Books and Preparation •
• After Sunday: A Theology of Work •
• A Captive Voice: The Liberation of Preaching •
• Written Text Becomes Living Word... •
• Voicing the Vision: Imagination & Prophetic Preaching •
• The Death of Innocents •

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