"Truths that Liberate the soul": Eva Jessye and the politics of religious performance

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In writing about her birth on a Sunday morning in Coffeyville, Kansas, Eva Jessye (1895-1992) highlighted a convergence that seemed to portend her lifelong commitment to interpreting and performing spirituals and other religious music. At the very moment she was born in her parents' house, "the 'Amen Corner' in the Macedonia Baptist Church across the street was at the boiling point. 'Hallelujahs,' 'Praises to God' and the frenzied 'stomp' of sisters in the throes of religious ecstasy resounded in the air."1 Her parents, children of former slaves, were not religious, Jessye wrote. Nevertheless, she felt keenly the influence of black Baptists and Methodists and the affectionately competitive relationship between the two groups that dominated Coffeyville's religious landscape, where Baptists far outnumbered Methodists. The presence of these two denominations also shaped the broader culture of African American life in the small city. Jessye mused that the coincidence of her birth and the Sunday morning praise activities in the nearby Baptist church may have accounted for her intense religious devotion as a child and for her love of "God and Nature with a passion nearing fanaticism. "2 She also wrote of the significance of her native Kansas in African American history as a "refuge for the runaway slave," emphasizing her upbringing in the context of a strong tradition of struggle for freedom and equality. From her origins in these black religious and activist cultures, Jessye went on to have a career as a self-described "dramatist of Negro music" which spanned much of the twentieth century, with credits in the "race records" industry of the 1920s and appearances on film and television. She staged and conducted plays and operas, enjoyed a thriving career on the concert scene, and participated, through the arts, in civil rights activism.3 Jessye's work as a "dramatist of Negro music" - which involved arranging, composing, and conducting religious music in ensemble and choral contexts - serves as a starting point to raise broad questions about how African American women have used the arts to do theological work and to put their theologies into play in public arenas that included but were not limited to religious institutions. Jessye's career, carried out largely outside of churches, calls us to interrogate and reformulate simple understandings of a boundary between sacred and secular in African American life (generally configured along the lines of church or nonchurch).4 Various scholars of gospel music have argued that the emergence of this musical form opened avenues to religious authority for black women, particularly in Christian denominational contexts in which they were denied access to ordination and the pulpit. In exploring the politics of gender, religion, and music in African American history, scholars have tended to limit themselves to institutional contexts, understanding the pulpit as the primary locus of religious authority and the formal sermon or published treatise as the primary religious discourse.5 Jessye was dedicated to the Christian message throughout her long life, but she did not locate her religious experience or work in a particular denominational or church context. The implications of this commitment raise significant methodological questions for the study of African American women's religious history. In an interview late in her life, she expressed pride in her work with the National Council of Churches and said, "[of] course I work for all churches. And I'm interested in so many things. Anything that makes a man better, that's the right church."6 Moreover, it seems clear that Jessye understood her work as a choral conductor as a religious vocation that allowed her to promote Christianity in ways that contravene clear distinctions between the secular and the sacred.7 The academic tendency to limit the investigation of questions about black women and religious authority to traditional denominational contexts is challenged by the theological and cultural work in which Jessye and others engaged in using the arts to express their religious commitments.8 Jessye entered the scene as an arranger and interpreter of black religious music during a period of heightened contestation over the means of collecting and preserving spirituals, the communally produced religious music that began emerging from black communities in the antebellum period. In addition to raising a variety of issues about preservation, African American intellectuals in the 1920s and 1930s debated the appropriate and authentic styles and venues for singing spirituals and the relationship between black religious musical traditions and contemporary black cultural politics. Black intellectuals including W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Zora Neale Hurston weighed in, each proposing different approaches to preserving black folk culture, but all agreed that "the progress of the New Negro depended on a successful recuperation and elucidation of the long-maligned black cultural inheritance."9 Precisely how to formulate and represent the relationship between the cultural products of the black folk and the modern, urban future of black America remained a fraught question throughout the 1920s and 1930s when Jessye was particularly active in preserving and performing traditional black music. Spirituals and other black folk music often figured prominently in these debates. While Du Bois, Locke, Hurston and others engaged vigorously the question of how best to transmit cultural memory within African American communities and represent it to others, they did not generally see the preservation and presentation of spirituals as an explicitly religious endeavor. Whereas Du Bois saw spirituals as "redemptive fragments of a fading stage of folk life" that needed to be given a place of distinction in African American memory, Jessye believed their dramatic performance to be a critical tool in the social, political, and spiritual development of African Americans.10 Jessye approached the issues that were raised in the context of the Harlem Renaissance from a perspective deeply informed by religious commitment, but she did not see her faith as placing her outside the scope of the movement. Indeed, she was acquainted with many of the literary and artistic figures of the Harlem Renaissance, and she composed music and rehearsed her choirs in Harlem studios during the movement's heyday.11 Although she understood the desire of generations born in freedom to distance themselves from the cultural products of slavery, she nevertheless criticized "those who inherited this great musical birthright" for coming to despise that cultural legacy. 12 Through her writings about and performances of spirituals, Jessye argued forcefully for the centrality of these cultural products in the religious lives and political activism of African Americans. In addition to dedicating herself to the preservation and transmission of distinctively black religious music, Jessye made the case throughout her career that spirituals could be used to illuminate and illustrate biblical stories and texts from Western literature and that placing these materials alongside one another could highlight or recast theological elements of the spirituals. In composing her own oratorios and folk oratorios - works that combined spirituals and European classical music with biblical, literary, and folk texts - she put forth powerful interpretations of major Christian theological tenets and demonstrated a commitment to using music and drama to promote a vision of human equality.13 Jessye endorsed an approach to African American religious aesthetics that valued music and performative styles that emerged from black communities, but did not understand African American religious experience as facilitated only by arts from African American contexts14.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationWomen and Religion in the African Diaspora
Subtitle of host publicationKnowledge, Power, and Performance
PublisherThe Johns Hopkins University Press
Number of pages23
ISBN (Print)9780801883705
StatePublished - 2006
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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