Last week Duke University President Richard Brodhead announced that Luke Powery of Princeton Theological Seminary will become the next Dean of Duke Chapel. Like many others who connect to Duke Chapel in various ways, I wondered throughout the summer who the next Dean might be and now find myself eagerly anticipating Dr. Powery’s arrival in September. In the meantime, I began reading his most recent book, Dem Dry Bones: Preaching, Death, and Hope.
Powery suggests that preaching in the Christian tradition can only offer a genuine message of hope once it has confronted the realities of death. This leads him to explore the folk spirituals of enslaved blacks in the United States, because “this death-dealing environment is the root of black preaching and singing.” Spirituals are important, in particular, because they are “musical sermons” designed to proclaim a message of hope under the shadow of death. But they are more than just melodies. As author and activist James Weldon Johnson said, “It is very difficult, if not impossible, to sing these songs sitting or standing coldly still, and at the same time capture the spontaneous ‘swing’ which is of their very essence.”
Spirituals require movement, and that movement is inherently political. It enacts a community’s resistance to the powers of oppression. As Powery notes, “The musical sermon is incomplete without some sort of body movement – dancing, swaying, rocking, tapping, clapping. … In slavery, the oppressors attempted to control the black body. But in slave religion, ‘the slaves would take their bodies back.’”
Reading this reminded me of a video I watched earlier this year from Thomas DeFranz, a professor in the Duke Dance Program. Here he shows how black social dances from the 19th century enacted bodily movements forbidden by white slaveholders and clergy concerned to regulate “Christian movement.”
In his most recent book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, James Cone also explores the politics of black movement. We see in Cone’s writing how the 19th century social dances DeFranz performs and the slave spirituals Powery describes continue to enact a politics of resistance in the lynching era (1880-1940). He says, “For most blacks it was the blues and religion that offered the chief weapons of resistance. At the juke joints on Friday and Saturday nights and at churches on Sunday mornings and evening week nights blacks affirmed their humanity and fought back against dehumanization.” In a later chapter he focuses explicitly on how black women “fought white domination in a variety of creative ways, in song, word, and dance.” Of special importance is Billy Holiday’s rendition of “Strange Fruit,” which Cone calls “the most powerful resistance song against lynching.
These songs, sermons, and dances of resistance are powerful examples of the politics of movement. They show how bodies can enact communal expressions of hope, and how movement can be a powerful form of political defiance. How does your body move? Do you “take your body back” from powers of oppression, or do you give it over? When your community gathers, how does it move? And what are the politics of that movement?