Call-and-Response: A Means to Resist Suffering

Toni Morrison once stated in an essay from Self-Regard, “Black Matters,” how inclusion within the traditional literary canon would open a world where “all of the interests are vested” (Morrison 170). In an essay, “Literature and Public Life,” thereafter Morrison says literature asks us to experience ourselves fully as “multidimensional persons” (Morrison 104). So we keep the thought in mind and when we read the words of W.E.B Du Bois and Bernice Johnson Reagon, it becomes clear to us how song as a method, in whatever form it takes, has been used to resist suffering. 

If we turn to Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois moves us through his commentary with paratextual music sections that flow easily with what he suggests on spiritual strivings. The speaker thinks of his experience in the shape of a vast veil as he is isolated from the rest, “[t]hen it dawned upon me with a certain suddenness that I was different from the others; or like, mayhap, in heart and life and longing, but shut out from their world by a vast veil” (Du Bois 738). A longing that is later presented as contempt for the White society on the other side, which fades into the realization that he and other Black youth are held down by the society. Du Bois goes on to discuss the two-ness of self concept for Black people, which causes them to constantly fluctuate between how they see themselves as White and Black society does. The inclusion of songs is used to introduce the tone of the experience that Du Bois is about to share. For instance, as we read aloud Symon’s poem/song, we hear the struggle and emotion associated with the time. Though, the repetition of mourning and ache in the outcry implies there isn’t much resolution to what is felt and endured, the idea that one can contend for freedom is a hope itself. 

In the class notes from February 12th, Professor McCoy reminds us that the “sorrow songs” as Du Bois calls them resemble Reagon’s “freedom songs,” of which the song leader says they are often about love and resistant effort, but as much about the internal process as the expression. In The Songs Are Free, Reagon suggests that there is a commitment that comes with the song that Black folks engage in as she represents the practice one does if they “start to run the sound through [their] body,” it goes separate from how they would decide it would, but it was that “[they] get together and sing to do this to the body.” A greater purpose in the sound is how to get to the act of singing. The singing belongs to you as much as it means to me and us. Yet Reagon doesn’t ignore a concern people have with the tradition’s future that figures without the song, Black narratives would not get to the next phase of society. It is then apparent how the song makes way for layers of experience and self-inquiry along with the embrace of a larger group. Reagon frequently refers to singing in the way that it nurtures the African American experience while it furthers reverence and gratitude for the life before us. When she says, “you cannot sing a song and not change your condition,” we are reminded of the significance of these spirituals as they adhere to the cultural “call” to alter what position they find themselves in. Reagon tells us of the world that resonates about “[Black people’s] specialness in the universe” when they have the access to their own voices. Often the most spirited thing to do in the face of violence and cruelty is provoking the structural powers that suppress one’s freedom, for demanding freedom is “the most-the highest risk” to have the chance of it. 

In these texts and others that have informed us of the African American literary tradition, we see references to Call-and-response; such a form that encourages a community by calling upon all people involved. The repetitive interaction emulates what we saw with African fractals, which were brought into effect by the “circular process…referred to as ‘recursion,’ a very powerful concept” (Eglash 17). A dimension of power found in the seed shape of song is its ability to affect the receiving end, partly depending on the singer’s knowledge of it or not; it has value that writers know their readers and listeners closely enough that it may be more than what they are aware of. Here, Gerard Genette’s notion of the paratext comes through as we unknowingly superimpose our own ideas of what song is and means, of what territory should be and conveys. Paratext assumes a process embedded in another —much like when we read, our own thoughts precede and interrupt the words, or lay underneath affecting us. The effect Reagon states in Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, is quite the intentional move of a writer, “[w]ithin African-American culture, there is a very high standard placed on the moment when one not only makes a solid statement of the song or the sermon, but the offering is given in one’s own signature” (Reagon 118). On that same note, in the interview with Reagon, she proposes that the exercise of song for the body is a part of the culture solely because the culture believes it is critical to being a developed person. Whether by personal and structural need, Black artists know how their work can be affective (felt) by employing the power of subtlety in other spoken word. And though the response is mostly expected, it is from this need that the call for it makes itself known to us. 

When we proceed to look for the importance of the seed shape within the literature, we find it right in front of us. It is the Call-and-response we are involved in by interacting with the texts. Seeing how said shape varies not just in its look, but also how it is read and iterated onto the next form challenged what I had thought about songs and more generally art in all of its purposes. Based on what is represented to us as an image of a repeated pattern, we see it as such and become accustomed to how it seems to be. So I’m left knowing that a handful of stories I may have encountered thus far and I tried to reach true understandings of were heavily influenced by who told me them regardless.

I mostly think about the saying that goes something like, if you want a new outcome, change the algorithm as well as Lauryn Hill’s speech from 2000 where she states to “think in doses, think in experiences, and don’t be afraid of experiences that teach you.” With the rest of our course, I want to test what I thought I knew about the literature alone, I want to test the understandings I currently have and had on narratives and movements within a story. I wonder about the ways in which Call-and-response could not just adhere to spoken or literary traditions, but also other traditions and forms within vast cultures we can learn from and almost infinitely.

Works Cited

Hill Patricia Alveda Liggins and Bernard W Bell. Call and Response : The Riverside Anthology of the African American Literary Tradition. Houghton Mifflin 1997.

Morrison, Toni. The Source of Self-Regard the Source of Self-Regard: Selected Essays, Speeches, and Meditations. Vintage Books, 2020.

Reagon, Bernice Johnson. “‘Nobody Knows the Trouble I See’; or, ‘By and By I’m Gonna Lay Down My Heavy Load.’” The Journal of American History, vol. 78, no. 1, 1991, pp. 111–19. JSTOR, Accessed 20 Feb. 2024.Reagon, Bernice Johnson. The Songs Are Free. Conducted by Bill Moyers. 6 Feb. 1991.

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