In Their Own Words — Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals

By Eileen Guenther

Review by Ruth Striegel

©2016 MorningStar Music Publishers, $28.00, paperback

Thanks to an initiative by Susan DeSelms and others at United Parish in Brookline, MA, UCCMA members have had the chance to learn about and implement Royalties for Spirituals. This new initiative seeks to repay the Black community each time a church community uses a spiritual in worship. As with any folk song, the original creators of Black spirituals are unknown. There is no copyright mechanism to compensate the creators or their descendants. Royalties for Spirituals seeks to create that mechanism by donating to relevant organizations that uplift Black life.

After watching the UCCMA webinar on this initiative, I realized that I had taken spirituals for granted my whole life. I was aware that enslaved people created them, but I didn't know much beyond that. I wanted to know more and felt obligated to honor those anonymous folks who sang despite their desperate circumstances. So, when I saw Dr. Guenther's book available from MorningStar, I purchased it and dug in. Reading In Their Own Words has been challenging, rewarding, and thought-provoking for me.

The difficult part of the book is reading about the life of the enslaved in their own words, as the title describes. Guenther draws on a wealth of slave narratives and testimonies by slave-owning family members to paint a picture of grinding poverty, unceasing labor, and frequent violence. The economy of the South was so entangled in slave labor that it seemed to have poisoned the entire culture. The enslaved lived in fear of the slave owners, but the owners, in turn, lived in fear of slave uprisings. No one escaped the system.

Another fascinating aspect of the antebellum South was the relationship between Christianity and slavery. African culture made no distinction between the sacred and the secular, so Africans captured and sold into slavery brought a worldview very different from that of European Americans. Practices that Africans brought with them were abhorrent to enslavers. Not surprisingly, religious gatherings among the enslaved were forbidden, closely monitored, or tightly controlled by owners or preachers. White preachers taught a gospel of obedience, with the hope of happiness after death. Secret prayer meetings built real community, nourished the enslaved's spiritual life, and brought forth many of the songs we now know as spirituals.

In Their Own Words describes the origins and characteristics of spirituals and later recounts the journey these songs took from the cotton fields to the concert hall. Guenther provides context for many spirituals, beginning with a chapter pairing fifty spirituals with slave commentaries. Another chapter groups spirituals by theme, again with descriptions from the enslaved in their own words. Finally, she provides a concordance of 100 spirituals with scripture references at the end of the book. These resources are beneficial as I teach and sing spirituals with my choir and congregation.

A work of over 400 pages, which Dr. Guenther worked on over ten years, In Their Own Words has a great deal to teach us, especially those of European ancestry. Therefore, I highly recommend it as a resource to help us sing the beloved spirituals with understanding and conviction. ■

Retired from a career teaching orchestra in public schools, Ruth Striegel now divides her time between advocating for a livable planet as a volunteer with Interfaith Power and Light, directing the music program at First Congregational in Albuquerque, NM, and leading the Green Justice team at the church. She's honored to serve on the UCCMA Board of Directors.


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