In Honor of MLK Day: My Mother on the Origin of Gospel Music

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The Howard Gospel Choir

As Bill Cosby famously said in his stand-up special, Himself, “My children think that my mother’s the most wonderful person on the face of this Earth.  And I keep telling my children, ‘That’s not the same woman I grew up with.  You’re looking at an old person who’s trying to get into heaven now.’”  So it is with my own mother, who has taken to listening old white people sing about Jesus on PBS most Sunday nights.  Last night, my daughter and I sat watching Bill Gaither’s show with my mother – who is trying to get into heaven – when my mother turned to my 5-year-old and asked, “Do you know where gospel music comes from?”

My daughter of course said no, and then my mother went on to explain.  ”Well, back in the day, a long time ago when there used to be slavery, the black people from Africa – singing and dancing was a big part of their culture.  So they brought it with them, because that was their only form of entertainment.”

“Their only form of entertainment?,” I thought to myself.  ”Here we go again!”

First things first: I would never describe my mother as racist.  I don’t think my mother has any negative feelings toward black people – it’s just – she’s a middle-aged white lady from Central New York who doesn’t actually know any black people.  Well, I take that back.  She used to know a black person, a “fella” she worked with, whom she revered with a kind of awe usually saved for the magical negro character in a movie.  My mother, once relaying a conversation they had, said, “He told me, ‘Terry, it’s not that you don’t like the heat.  It’s that you don’t like workin’ in the heat.  You’d like the heat if you could lay on the beach all day and drive a big boat around.’  And I thought, ‘Wow.  You know, that’s awful smart.’”

Needless to say, when my mother began attempting to teach my daughter – who was born in Harlem – about the origins of gospel music, my butt-cheeks clenched and my ears perked up.  ”That was their only form of entertainment.”  (As if slaves spent their days picking cotton and their nights choreographing Broadway musicals.)  ”So the slaves sang songs called spirituals, and because they were black, they were called negro spirituals.  Then the white people took their music and made it into gospel!”

I wish I could make this stuff up.

“Mom!,” I cried, giving her a stern look.  My mother started laughing and said, “Well, I’m close, aren’t I?!”

“Not really,” I said.  ”Gospel music is black music.  When old white people sing it, it’s Christian contemporary at best.”  We both laughed.  And then when the camera panned to one of the few black women in Bill Gaither’s choir, my mother said, “Isn’t she pretty?  Every time they show her she’s always wearing something beautiful.  She reminds me of Cicely Tyson.”  What can I say?  There was a slight resemblance.  My mother may not be perfect, but she’s trying… trying to understand the world I live in, and to get into heaven – where she can listen to all the gospel music she can handle.

Photo via Flickr

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