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Can Prisoners Singing Negro Spirituals Be Heard Outside the Penitentiary? Can They Still Communicate Pain and Hope?

This past week I started listening to Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, via I’ve always considered the American Revolution a bit mysterious, given what we were taught at school. I can’t even imagine picking up a gun, because I was outraged about a tax on tea…..

Well, besides the historical forces leading up to the American Revolution, Zinn’s book has been disussing slavery. That set in motion thinking about a modern manifestation of slavery – viz., unjust incarceration for non-violent drug offences, which has hit blacks particularly hard. In spite of having a black President, this topic seems absent from the public discourse. Even now that Obama’s been re-elected, I’m extremely doubtful that he’ll do anything to end this modern form of slavery.

What to do?

Many moons ago, when ole metamars was young metamars, I went to a gospel music concert, at my college. Recruiting must not have been a problem – my college was for “non-traditional” students, and about 1/3 were black. The group was on the large size, and very talented.

I didn’t last long. Tears started welling up in my eyes, I got very emotional, and wanted to avoid the embarassment of breaking down and crying in public. So, I got up and left.

35 years ago, Negro spirituals were still communicating pain and hope. 100 years after the civil war. 10 years after the Civil Rights Act. And probably for all time.

As luck or karma would have it, this morning I was in Penn Station, in Newark, NJ, and saw a small line of people waiting to transact business with a single guy, seated at a small card table. A hand written sign said “Joint Connection”. I had no idea what this was about, and was curious enough to ask the lady at the end of the line. She said it was for bus rides to prison. I asked if that was free. “Thirty Five Dollars!”, she answered, a little painfully.

I asked her if she knew if there were singing groups in prison. She said some religious people would come by to sing, but as far as she knew, there were no prisoner singing groups. “They don’t want people to be too happy (in prison)”.

Yeah, well, bully on them. /s Slave owners generally didn’t want their slaves to be happy, either, but I’m not aware of any of them successfully stopping their slaves from singing. If enough prisoners wanted to sing songs of hope and pain, I don’t think prison wardens would be able to stop them. What are they going to do to them if they sing? Whip them? That’s very 19th century, and won’t fly, today.

Besides giving hope – and hope for a better life in the Hereafter is about all a lifer can reasonably expect – the power of emotive song might sooth violent frictions between gang members, or even individuals, who are nursing some personal grievance or irrational hatred.

But it’s the possibility of Negro spirituals flying freely beyond prison walls that the singers, themselves, can’t pass through, that intrigues me. Sympathetic guards could capture prisoners singing their hearts out on iPhones, and release it to the world on youtube. Ex-cons can form choirs, and go around from church to church, meeting hall to meeting hall, and give free concerts, explaining to jaded outsiders that non-violent prisoners can’t very well free themselves.

The greatest sin is indifference. It is indifference and jadedness that is keeping people unjustly imprisoned – not multi-millions of Americans waking up every morning, thinking about how they can grow America’s prison population, nor how much they hate black people, nor how much we need fear ‘if’the “War on Drugs” fails. Sure, the architects of this national disgrace had nefarious and/or selfish agendas, but without the acquiescense of millions of basically nice, but civically useless and effectively indifferent Americans, this nightmare of wasted lives would not have taken root.

Let the singing begin. There are worse fates than crying in public, or even crying alone in your room, while still being free to live like a man, instead of caged up like an animal. If a lot more crying, either public or private, helps ends this national disgrace, then I’m all for it.

Oh, yeah. I asked the man at “Joint Connections” how long his organization was running buses to prisons. He said “many years”. I’ve been living in Newark for many years, I’m in Penn Station all the time, but never took notice of “Joint Connections”. You might say that “I was blind, but now, I see”.


Trouble of the World – Mahalia Jackson (emphasis on the pain)

He / I Believe – Gospel – WHITNEY & CISSY HOUSTON Duet Live (emphasis on the hope; not sure if this gospel song counts as a Negro spiritual, but honestly, who cares, Whitney singing like an angel, her Mom’s not too bad, either….)

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