Bondage … in Black

Deep in the heart of the Mississippi Delta rests a historical milieu slicing through the lurid white canvas of King Cotton that stretches on for miles. At Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church in Greenwood, two enormous pecan trees guard the grave of blues legend Robert Johnson. Reputed southern folklore claims Johnson once sold his soul to the devil at a nearby crossroads in exchange for mastery of the guitar.

I visited that church last summer on a trip with the William Winter Summer Youth Institute. Our tour guide told us an intriguing tidbit about Little Zion that wasn’t so much surprising but more mind blowing when I considered the historical significance. He said when the Black congregation would hold Sunday services, white people from the area would park their cars behind the church so they could hear the songs from the choir inside.

The white people were too stout-hearted and firm in their racist convictions to join the church members in their worship, although they didn’t let this prejudice hinder their ears from enjoying the gospel music. It’s a familiar sentiment—the contradiction of being seen as attractive yet simultaneously being a rejection.

Down the road from the church are acres of plantations that never seem to end, where enslaved people and sharecroppers would toil, day by day, for little to nothing. Behind a patch of poison ivy, adjacent to the church, lies the Tallahatchie River, the body of water that once held the mutilated body of Emmett Till, a case that saw national ridicule but no indictment … ever. The collective experiences of Black folks contributed to the creation of our aesthetic—a style rooted in trauma that eventually became the backbone of American music.

I recently read an article by New York Times Magazine staff writer Wesley Morris in which he made the following statement on the exploitation of Black music: “Loving Black culture has never meant loving Black people, too. Loving Black culture risks loving the life out of it.” When you listen to Black artists telling their stories through song, poetry and other mediums, you’re absorbing tales of bondage and the elusiveness of triumph over that pain. To some it might not be crucial, but in reality, that’s exactly what it is: survival.

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