Black history in white gospel
Black history month is only just a few days behind us, and besides we’ve talking about race and gospel music some recently anyway. So it seems worth noticing something one doesn’t see that much of in southern gospel: a white gospel artist specifically, publicly, and appreciatively connecting what he does to black gospel traditions (though it’s also true that black and white gospel in general don’t really spend much time purposefully reflecting on how they have relied upon and been shaped by each other). Thus a recent e-blast from the Ernie Haase and Sig Sound mothership:
In light of it being “Black History month” here in the U.S., I would like to pay tribute to all our African-American friends for their contribution to our world. And more specifically, I’d like to acknowledge and share the great music they have provided to the world, especially to EHSS. Without this music, there probably would not have been EHSS, or at least the style of EHSS. Get Away Jordan, Old Landmark, Swinging On The Golden Gate, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and so many other songs we perform each night came from these writers and churches and we are blessed to honor that influence this month.
This is followed by a link to some of black gospel artists Haase says has shaped his life (among them, Thomas Dorsey, Mahalia Jackson, Jessy Dixon, and the Hummingbirds).
More than one point of contact I’ve had with People Who Know have indicated to me that the response to this e-blast included a troubling number of hateful replies from fans (as in, more than a hundred) that seem to range from latently supremacist to downright racist. I wish I could say I was surprised, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still saddening.
I wish not to dwell on this overmuch (not least of all because I understand there were even more positive responses), but I also think intellectual honesty and moral integrity require all of us to acknowledge that racism is not some thing of the past in southern gospel that we can consign to the comfortable distance of ye olde days of Jim Crow. And I say “us” and “we” quite intentionally: for my part, I’ve had to confront quite publicly my own blind spots when it comes to race and gospel (see here if you’re new or have a bad memory; I also included this episode in the book - page 202, note 51 - as a way to document that we all have skin in the game, so to speak, when it comes to America’s race history).
And the valuable necessity of publicly reconciling with one’s own past (individually and collectively) is part of what I was getting at in a recent post: southern gospel as a cultural force has yet to come to terms with the fact that in the not-so-distant past, southern gospel not infrequently used the power of celebrity and the cultural authority of religious music to perpetuate attitudes and practices of racial inequality, injustice, and oppression. At least it hasn’t come to terms with this reality with anything close to same level of publicity and longevity with which white supremacy and racism were an open and common part of southern gospel life. And, as the EHSS example suggests, that hateful legacy lives ominously on.
I’ve documented a fairly appalling collection of examples from this dark passage of southern gospel history in my book (see Chapter 3, pages 96-103), not because it was easy or because I enjoyed it (it wasn’t and I didn’t) but because a culture that is as serially nostalgic as southern gospel is also expert at cultivating a good-ole-days fantasy of its own golden age that airbrushes out the inconvenient or unpleasant parts, including the reality that some of its biggest names and most revered artists were segregationists and racists who engaged in segregationist and/or racist speech and actions in their roles as southern gospel performers (and these are people who have been feted and venerated well into our time without any indication by today’s generation of stars and fans that this golden age racism was or is a problem). How can anyone really and fully learn from the past if it’s forgotten or ignored?
No, openly racist behaviors are no longer acceptable in southern gospel (though plenty of folks would suggest that Bible-based bigotry has just found a new object in the more politically activist dimensions of southern gospel’s culture-war celebrities today; and here’s a good place to note that the last couple of times I’ve been to an EHSS concert, I’ve been impressed by how gracefully and - it seems to me - authentically Haase has made a point to reach out and try to make his music connect to segments of the Christian music audience who might be easily alienated by some of the more polemical rhetoric of the southern gospel mainstream). No, not everyone was a racist in southern gospel, of course not. And yes, the range of what was deemed normative and acceptable among mainstream southern white culture is different today than it was in the 1950s.
But the half-life of racism is toxic and long, reaching much farther than the limited effects of historical context and cultural qualifications to explain away the likes of Hovie and Jake and JD’s actions (among others). Their imitations of black singers and their mocking stories about black religious culture and their “black voice” recordings were not just good-natured fun at the competition’s expense: they were white men using the power that automatically accrued to any white man in the Jim Crow South to reduce black America to a dismissible collection of primitive, outsized, barely civilized tics, mannerisms and customs (and the fact that these guys stopped doing their racist set pieces from the stage and in the studio when openly racist behaviors become unacceptable in mainstream American life strongly suggests they knew it was wrong … who knows what, if any, excuse is offered by the kind of performer who was still telling watermelon jokes from the stage as late as the 1980s). Repairing the deep breech of racism that much of American evangelicalism helped widen for the better part of the twentieth century cannot be repaired by simply pretending or wishing it was never so.
Even the Southern Baptist Convention recognized this, however belatedly, in its 1995 resolution on racial reconciliation. Can southern gospel imagine itself no less implicated than Southern Baptism, no less morally - to say nothing of spiritually - compromised by its collective failure to try to come to some kind of collective terms with the role it played in gilding racism with the cultural authority of the gospel? Well, yes, I suppose southern gospel might by and large imagine just that. Seeing through a glass darkly and all.
Even so. Atonement requires more than not repeating the offenses of history. And people who rely on narratives of redemption to understand themselves and the world must surely, chief among confessing men and women, realize the expiating truth of this proposition.
So, yeah … one black history month post by a white gospel group isn’t going to become a propitiation for all of southern gospel’s race sins, though a resolution from the SGMG, the NQC, the GMA, the SGMA, among others, along the lines of the SBC’s would be a not-bad place start. Resolutions themselves don’t do much, but the process and resulting conversation that would be required to produce one would be worth it (this was the point, I think, of the SBC resolution). Not least of all, such a process and result would be good for bidness, and you know what else? It’d also be good practice, since in a generation or so, these folks’ descendants will need to engage in a process of reconciliation along similar lines for the deplorable way gay folks have been treated by much of Christian music.
But in any case, good on Haase for being purposeful in practicing the small but not inconsequential acts of reconciliation that have to be a part of truly redemptive cultural repentance.
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