Call and Response: The Inclusion of Art in Text

  While reading through the textbook Call and Response The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition, I noticed the ample collection of different forms of art. At first I thought it was just there for fun, but then after the class discussing W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk I went back to my notes and started digging more. The editors chose to emphasize the different sections and topics within the anthology by both juxtaposing the array of media used, while also tying them together with their importance to the culture itself. Therefore, it is imperative for the reader to take in not only the text itself, but also the images, musical lines, poetry, etc. that the editors chose to add in throughout the anthology in order to best understand the culture from an outsider’s point of view.

At the beginning of each section there is a small paragraph describing the period of time as well as the topic that will be covered. Around that text however, is the presence of the art. For example, in the first section of the text titled ‘Go Down, Moses, Way Down in Egypt’s Land’ the editors include both a portrait by Aaron Douglass from James Weldon Johnson’s ‘God’s Trombones’, as well as a line of musical notes titled Listen Lord, My Prayer. (pp. 1) I believe that the editors included this art as a way to emphasize the importance of oral and visual artistic traditions in African American culture. African American culture values these traditions because of the oppression of education during slavery and the lack of black folks being given the knowledge to be able to write or read. This oral tradition allows them to pass on the lessons and knowledge they have gained from their ancestors as well as give hidden advice on how to escape slavery. As Angela Khristin Brown says, “African-American oral culture is rich in poetry, including spirituals, gospel music, blues, and rap. This oral poetry also appears in the African-American tradition of Christian sermons, which make use of deliberate repetition, cadence, and alliteration. African-American literature—especially written poetry, but also prose—has a strong tradition of incorporating all of these forms of oral poetry.” (pp. 2, Brown)

Throughout this first section of Call and Response (which is set from 1619-1808 and discusses the conditions of slavery and oppression) the editors sprinkle in lines of music from this time period about these conditions. Examples of this include ‘What Ship is This That’s Landed on the Shore?’ (pp.4), ‘Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?’ (pp. 10), and ‘Oh! de Song of Salvation Is a Mighty Sweet Song’ (pp.19). I believe the editors chose these specific songs due to their lyricism in relation to the topic. In ‘What Ship is This That’s Landed on the Shore?’ The black gospel song is about the transplantation of the African peoples “Although the overwhelming majority of colonial Africans were reduced to this state of perpetual slavery, Africans in the North American British colonies made up only a portion of a larger black population that has been transported as slaves on the Middle Passage to destinations throughout the New World.” (pp.4-5) This song is a testament to the African peoples resilience in such a difficult time in history where they were separated across the globe, but were still brought together in their culture through music. 

The song ‘Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel?’ shows the importance of ancestors and black history as a part of African American culture. In order to move on and continue through life in a meaningful way, you must always look back at your ancestors, their lives, and the struggles they went through to have you be where you are. This is complimented very well with the recursive nature of the songs themselves, as well as the editors choice to consistently go back to the music and art of the time throughout the anthology. “As Olaudah Equiano explains in The Interesting Narrative in Africa the spoken word, music, and dance were at the center of a communal and profoundly religious way of life. Most Africans believed that spirits lived in all things- in plants, in trees, in animals, and even in stones, as well as in people. All things on earth were connected by a life force that tied people to people and people to things. Most Africans also practiced ancestral worship. They believed that a person’s soul survived after death and that they could reach the souls of their long-dead ancestors.” (pp. 10) In accordance with this way of ancestral worship, you would look back on and ask for guidance from your ancestors and their lives that led to your birth. The repetition of the music itself, as well as the music appearances throughout the anthology really pushes the importance of this belief.

Lastly, the song ‘Oh! de Song of Salvation Is a Mighty Sweet Song’ is a celebratory song speaking of both the song itself being powerful to black folks, as well as the meaning behind the song. Singing of freedom and salvation from slavery. The inclusion of this music reminds me of both the video we watched with Bernice Johnson Reagon, as well as W.E.B. DuBois’ The Souls of Black Folk. The inclusion of this music was intentional and impacts the way a reader interprets the text around it. With the intentional placement of the music, I am reminded of the impact Beth mentioned at the one version of The Souls of Black Folk being published without the musical lines, thus accidentally changing the meaning of the text’s interpretations.As with the video we watched in class, Bernice Johnson Reagon spoke of music being just a way to get to singing, and that singing was the way to bring people together in a meaningful way. “I learned that if you bring black people together, you bring them together with a song.” Music has a way of both staying the same and changing with the times. The notes and music itself stays exactly the same but the meaning behind it shifts with the culture itself. Much like Bernice Johnson Reagon spoke of devotional songs such as “This Little Light Of Mine” shifting and being used as “Freedom Songs” during the Civil Rights Movement. With each piece of knowledge gained from both the images and musical lines, the reader is better equipped to interpret the text itself in a deeper way. Art is not made in a vacuum, it is impacted by the history and culture around it.

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