On The Old Testament, Slavery And Gospel Music

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The Bible is an object, and like any object, it can be used for many purposes.

After the Flood in Genesis 9, Noah planted a vineyard, got drunk and fell asleep naked. Apparently, Noah became angry with Ham, one of Noah’s sons, for telling his brothers about their father’s nakedness and having him covered. It doesn’t seem like that big an offense to me, but in the next verse we find Noah pronouncing a curse on Canaan:

"Cursed be Canaan!
The lowest of slaves
will he be to his brothers." (v9:25)

Throughout history, various people have used the Bible to justify slavery, sexism and oppression. Although it is arguable whether the Bible condones it, slavery has been a part of human nature since written records, and some 30 million slaves still exist in the world today. While it’s easy to use the Bible to justify slavery in general, I see no support for those who say the curse of Ham has racial implications. If Ham, Shem and Japheth were all biological descendants of Noah, it’s a fair argument each was of the same race.

Oppressed people of any kind tend to cultivate a deeper respect for their own identities, and come to view peers as separate from the identities of their oppressors. Slavery produces an array of psychological conditions only truly understood by the enslaved. A slave and his master cannot truly relate to one another, but every slave can relate fully to every other slave, as the incarcerated relate with every other inmate, on a level that people who haven’t done time can’t understand. This is true of every subculture; members develop a certain solidarity with other members on account of common experience. Although it’s lessened somewhat over the years, there is a bond between skateboarders that transcends race and creed or space and time. It is similar to the bond many black people share with one another.

I can see how slaves used the Old Testament to deal with slavery. If we could reduce the Old Testament to two words, they might be God delivers – the Israelites into their promised land; Daniel from the lion’s den; Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego from the fire; Jonah from the belly of the whale. Although suffering is more a concept of the New Testament, slaves can view suffering as their lot, and rationalize it by focusing on the hope of the afterlife. Believing that heaven is immanent somewhat relieves the pain of the here and now.

Several aspects of the Old Testament parallel the black slave experience. The Jews were enslaved mercilessly by the Egyptians but God eventually set them free, and the situation lent well to the notion that there’s a happy ending to the blood, sweat and tears. The overarching theme of the Old Testament is that God will bring his people home, if not in this life, most certainly in the next. Slaves’ religion allowed them to transcend their privations. They weren’t free physically, but they were free spiritually and emotionally, and these were key ingredients to their happiness, perseverance and hope.

These qualities and experiences cultivated the soul and spirit of gospel music, and I still see this quality in black people and music today. On MUNI, which is normally quiet, boring and oppressive, I often hear black people talking, singing and laughing. Although I don’t have a wide enough exposure old gospel hymns and spirituals, of what I have heard, perseverance and hope are certainly the keynotes.

The temporal nature of worldly life is also a keynote, as in Soon I Will Be Done.

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