By Wanda Ravernell
May 22, 2012

Sheet music to "Steal Away to Jesus," and a drawing of Harriett TubmanHealing Through Negro Spirituals is a project funded by ACTA’s Living Culture’s Grants Program in San Francisco.  Serving vulnerable women who have suffered violence in their lives, this program is a powerful testimony to the power of traditional arts towards health.  A program of Glide Memorial Church, their mission statement reads that they strive, “…to be a radically inclusive, just, and loving community mobilized to alleviate suffering and break the cycles of poverty and marginalization.”

Wanda Ravernell is a mentor-teacher with the project at Glide’s Women’s Center and co-founder of the Awon Ohun Omnira Project, dedicated to keeping alive the connections of African-Americans with their African roots.

Once a week, at the Women’s Center of Glide Memorial Methodist Church, a revolution takes place.

Under the inspiration and leadership of Program Manager Zwazzi Sowo, and this year supported by the Living Cultures Grants Program, women drop in for a healing so old it’s new.  The method and the medicine are simple: singing.  But not just any song or even chant – but the body of work known as the Negro Spirituals.

At 3:30, they come and sit in a circle.  They introduce themselves and say how they are feeling.  They are reminded why they are here: That men and women who were captured from Africa and enslaved in America had little else to give them comfort in their time of travail except these songs.  Using African melody and rhythm and drawing on the imagery of the Bible, the spirituals are a distinctly African American phenomenon that was declared a National Treasury by the U.S. Congress in 2007.

Every Voice Is Welcome

Led by choir member Emma Jean Foster, the women raise their voices with “Wade in the Water,” “Run, Mary, Run,” and “Way Over in Beulah Land,” a medley she learned during her eight years with Linda Tillery’s Cultural Heritage Choir.  They’ve done “Steal Away,” which is said to have been used by Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman to call those slaves intent on running away.  They’ve sung the emotional “Fix Me Jesus,” the lively “Amen,” made famous by Sidney Poitier in the 1963 film Lilies of the Field.

They sing themselves to laughter and tears of joy and realization, the realization that a whole people who once suffered the burden, pain, and sorrow of slavery have made it through and that today, just as those songs comforted the souls of those long gone, so can those very same songs lift burdens today, the burden of domestic violence, the stigma and denigration of drug addiction or alcoholism that may have been the cause of losing custody of their children.

Sowo sometimes brings out rattles and a washboard, broomstick and a wooden planter to mimic the improvised percussion the enslaved people used.  Every voice is welcome on key or off and every woman, of different ages and backgrounds, including transgender women.

Wanda Ravernell, who provides context and history for each song and helps the women draw a parallel between their own lives and the slaves’ lives long ago, is continually awed by the effects of the songs and the singing.

The healing can be instantaneous or cumulative.  On a crowded day in January, the women sang.  Then they each took a moment to say what they felt.  One women who had been sitting back in the couch, slightly hunched, leaned forward and said, “Now I can talk.”  And she did.  About her victimization, about blaming herself for it.  Within a few minutes she was on her feet, turning the broom to the floor and mimicking sweeping her abuser out of her life.  Tears rolled down her face to a big smile.

Two weeks later she came up to Sowo in the hallway and said how that day changed her life.  She had left her abuser and found a space in a shelter for victims of domestic violence.

Lorene was one of the first women to attend when the program started in January 2011.  The last time she dropped in in April 2012, she told the group she had just come off five days of detox for alcohol.  “I feel really comfortable when I leave. If I don’t have a movie to calm me down, on Wednesdays I can come here.”

The songs remind her of her grandmother and friends when they had fish fries and cookouts and they would sing in fields.  When the going got tough at the detox center, Lorene said, “I sung ‘Wade in the Water’ and hummed a couple of hymns my Grandma taught me.”

How It Got Started

Sowo had long been troubled by the appalling reality revealed in statistics.  Across the nation, black women experience 35 percent more violence then white women and 22 percent more than other women of color, and the severity of the violence is much higher for black women than any other group of women, she said.  In San Francisco, the facts are even more stark.  Blacks represent only six percent of the population but African American women make up 49 percent of the homeless population and 62 percent of the incarcerated population.  Despite this, black women “are the least likely to seek services.”  At the Women’s Center, “We made it our charge to target African American women.

“We were looking for a way to create more of a healing place for black women, and we were only two staff and lot of volunteers, none of whom are black.  Settling on Negro Spirituals as the healing factor was serendipitous.

“In my life, I have always used Negro Spirituals to help me and others,” Sowo said.  “Sitting with sick people, babies born into oppressive environments, my own sadness worry or concern I would always go to (the spirituals) to bring comfort and healing energy to the space.”

In August of 2010, she went to an awards ceremony sponsored by a Bay Area organization, the Friends of Negro Spirituals, at the San Francisco Public Library.  There were several awards presented that day, among them one to Ravernell of Awon Ohun Omnira, whose small choir demonstrates the source of the melodies of the spirituals to the ancestor songs of West Africa.

Sowo approached her about helping to create and participate in a healing circle using the spirituals.  Ravernell readily agreed.  Sowo shared her intent with women at the Center, who then kept asking, “When is it going to start?”  She approached Rev. Cecil Williams, Glide Founder, for help.

The Right Person to Approach

It turns out that Williams and his brothers, while attending Houston-Tillotson College in Texas, had once formed a group to sing the spirituals they’d learned from their elders, especially their grandfather, Papa Jack Best, and ex-slave.

“We grew up singing spirituals.  They were the only songs we knew.  Gospel hadn’t become renowned at the time.”

After work, his elders would sit on the front porch and sing and interpret the songs for the children.  He was always aware of the spirituals’ power.  “Steal Away” was a freedom song, not just a religious song.  “The words meant that there was no doubt about getting away from slavery.  African Americans needed to be doing all they could to not be in slavery all of their lives.

“‘Ev’ry Time I Feel the Spirit’ was to lift you up.  It tells you not to be so down that you won’t be able to get up.”

Within days after Sowo’s request, Williams was coming up the steps to the Women’s Center with his wife and Glide Founding President, Jan Mirikitani, and longtime Glide choir member Emma Jean Foster.  “I’m coming to talk about Negro Spirituals,” he announced.  Together with Domestic Violence Specialist Talilah Douglas, they hammered out a general plan and Mirikitani went to the board to appeal for the stipend money.

Putting it All Together

In November 2010, Sowo met with Ravernell.  “I wasn’t sure how I could help,” Ravernell recalls.  “I don’t have a background in music.”

What she did have was a passion for the history of African America.  “I didn’t grow up singing anything much less spirituals.  But what I realized just a few years ago is that these songs are the history of African Americans, captured and then enslaved, from their point of view.

“There is no historian or biographer who can speak for them more than these songs.  The more I know about these songs, the closer I feel to them and that feeling is precious to me,” she says.

Foster, who has sung with Tillery, Sylvester, Emmett Powell and the Gospel Elite, and a number of secular bands, has been a member of the Glide choir for 31 years.  (The Glide choir and Foster, who is a featured soloist, can be seen in the video below.)

“Cecil came to choir rehearsal one night and said, ‘I need some women to volunteer to teach Negro Spirituals in the Women’s Center,’ I was the only one to raise my hand.”

Foster’s Wednesdays are long.  After her day job, she comes to the Women’s Center still in uniform, leads the group and hangs around for choir rehearsal that night.  But it’s worth it for her.  “It means to be a part of history, changing the mindsets of our people….  I enjoy witnessing the effects the songs have on African Americans, witnessing the healing process – the tears of joy. That’s invaluable – the proof in the pudding.”

She grew up singing some of the songs, like ‘Since I Laid My Burden Down’ and a new favorite “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” in her Pentecostal church in Seattle.

“When something doesn’t feel right, I can strike out and sing one of these songs and whatever was getting to me doesn’t get to me anymore.”

Anybody who witnesses the gathering knows that the historical component is what moves Douglas.  When Ravernell brings the books demonstrating a point of a song, Douglas becomes instantly engrossed.  “(The women) get a different sense of dignity and pride, it creates a different energy.”

Another thing about the group is the democracy of voices.  “I like that the women don’t have to sang, there’s a way they’ve been taught about not to sing and they have no voice.  Before I started doing this work I never sang like I do now.  I focus less on the sound of my voice and more on the sound.”

Khara Scott-Bey, the Women’s Center’s Domestic Volence Victims Advocate, also likes that she doesn’t have to sang.  “I loved the practice of singing loud.  ‘Oh, I don’t sound that bad,’ ‘Oh, I can keep a beat.'”

Douglas, who learned the songs at church, knew they were “a comfort for me. I knew how singing them picked me up.  I could be walking down the street sometimes in despair, the spirit or the songs would be there even if I didn’t remember the words. I would hum it.”

Source of the Spirituals

It is believed that the songs, the melodies, came from Africa, and were re-created by the enslaved people in the tobacco and cotton fields, at secret camp meetings in hush arbors at night and generally authored not by one person but the community.  Like African spirituality, the songs were organic, growing through time and spreading from place to place.

The women take the liberty to do that in their own ‘camp meetings,’ creating lyrics to match their own circumstances.

For instance:

Didn’t mah Lawd deliver Daniel,
deliver Daniel, deliver Daniel?
Didn’t mah Lawd deliver Daniel
And why not every man?
He delivered Daniel from the lion’s den
Jonah from the belly of the whale
The Hebrew children from the fiery furnace
Then why not every man?

Women’s Center Version
Didn’t my Lord deliver Queen Lorene
Deliver Jasmine, deliver Emma Jean
Didn’t my Lord deliver Wanda
Then why not every woman?
He delivered Khara from insecurity
And Emma from a violent man
Cynthia from lies and darkness,
So why not every woman?

Once a month, at Williams and Mirikitani’s behest, Foster and Ravernell bring the spirituals to ‘Speakout’ in Freedom Hall, an opportunity for Glide’s clientele to speak their piece about anything on their minds.

“It is critical to my life when they come on Wednesdays,” Williams says.  “It lifts me up.  The church is a better place, closer to God because of the spirituals.”

To Scott-Bey, there is a deepening of understanding.  “I always want to honor ancestry, but this is a deeper language, speaking to the spirit….  A level of awe, of connection and pride and something of justice, not a forgotten thing.”

What’s Next

Everybody wants more.  The women chatter among themselves after the closing prayer and are reluctant to leave at 4:30.  Sowo and Douglas want more women, especially black women, to show up for a healing especially beneficial to them.

In Douglas’ observance, the spirituals were something Glide had drifted away from but is getting back now.

“The revolution has already started by doing this,” Williams says.  “It will grow… (the spirituals) always move me and I know why — because they come from my ancestors and they suffered.  I feel good (when I sing them) because I know the ancestors are going to lift me and carry me on.”