The Gospel of the Flies

March 1, 2008 § Leave a comment

Now reading: The Confessions of Nat Turner.

Jaime and I saw the gospel group the Dixie Hummingbirds in concert a few weeks ago. (They shared a twin bill with Solomon Burke, and last night we saw another twin bill of Booker T. Jones and the Maceo Parker Band. It’s been a good music month.) The Hummingbirds got me thinking about gospel music, for some reason; watching them, somehow gospel made sense to me in a way it hadn’t before.

I’m not an expert by any means, and I’ve never studied gospel, so what I’m about to say is probably blindingly obvious to many. Suddenly it made sense that gospel would be connected so intimately to Jesus, specifically. And it made sense that the profound connection of African American music to religion would be made through the figure of Jesus. He’s an almighty being, mysteriously connected to a father-figure, brought to a strange land, in thrall to his fate and his flesh. With the power, should he choose to use it, to stop the whole chain of events leading to his subjection, brutal abuse, and agonizing death. But choosing, instead, to go through with his physical and mental torture, sacrificing himself that others might be reconciled to their wrongdoing.

I had never thought about this before, how gospel music focuses to such a large degree on Jesus and on the prophets that (in the common Christian understanding of the Bible) prefigure his life and suffering. How of course, if gospel was born of slave songs, those songs would focus on Jesus, on suffering, on redemption. Duh.

Nat Turner, in Styron’s book, quotes compulsively from the Bible, but at least so far he is an Old Testament aficionado: Psalms, Proverbs, Job. His is a religion of people subjected and fighting to throw off their subjection, with a wrathful Jehovah’s encouragement. There’s a remarkable passage, early on, in which Nat watches a fly in his cell. He first thinks of a fly as “one of the most fortunate of God’s creatures. Brainless born… unacquainted with misery or grief.” But he quickly changes his mind, thinking of them instead as “God’s supreme outcasts, buzzing eternally between heaven and oblivion in a pure agony of mindless twitching.” He thinks, “Surely then, that would be the ultimate damnation: to exist in the world of a fly, eating thus [on whatever offal presented itself], without will or choice and against all desire.”

His thoughts connect to one of his masters “saying that Negroes never committed suicide.” And he realizes that this has been true in his experience. Then there’s this:

“…in the face of such adversity it must be a Negro’s Christian faith, his understanding of a kind of righteousness at the heart of suffering, and the will toward patience and forbearance in the knowledge of life everlasting, which swerved him away from the idea of self-destruction. And the afflicted people thou wilt save, for thou art my lamp, O Lord; and the Lord will lighten my darkness. But now as I sat there amid the sunlight and the flickering shadows of falling leaves and the incessant murmur and buzz of the flies, I could no longer say that I felt this to be true. It seemed rather that my black shit-eating people were surely like flies, God’s mindless outcasts, lacking even that will to destroy by their own hand their unending anguish…”

That’s rough stuff. “The righteousness at the heart of suffering” does seem, indeed, to reside at the very core of gospel music (Christianity in general, of course, from denomination to denomination in varying degrees). Music seems to have been part of a whole array of somewhat miraculous activities that, quite simply, kept slaves living, working, dying. It’s beautiful, profound music. And you can see that dark side, that side that Nat identifies in the end of the passage above. What to make of some of these songs now being part of most hymnal books, being performed in concerts as entertainment and part of the American songbook used by anyone, everyone, Rod Stewart, Tony Bennett, et al.?

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