In light of the near approach of the Martin Luther King national holiday, I thought I’d spend some time reflecting upon some of the many things I like about African-American culture. I’ll limit myself to four comments, saving the best reflection for last.
My first three reflections were stimulated by reading Angela Nelson’s essay “The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture” in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture. Nelson, a professor at Bowling Green State University, defines black popular culture as, “an arena of daily life in any culture that actualizes, engenders, operationalizes, or signifies pleasure, enjoyment, and amusement according to the beliefs, values, experiences, and social institutions of people of African descent in particular but also other racial groups in general” and then goes on to comment upon seven aspects of black culture: the city, food/cuisine, rhythm, percussiveness, call-response, worship service / party, and middle-class ideology. As I read Nelson’s article, and reflected upon those seven aspects, I found myself profoundly grateful for all that African-Americans “bring to the table” in the United States of America. I’ll make three comments reflecting upon Nelson’s essay and then make one final and significant comment reflecting upon Christian Scripture.
Food & Cuisine
As Nelson notes, one noteworthy characteristic of black culture is “soul food,” a cuisine typically associated with African-Americans in the Deep South. Soul food is often referenced in literature and music. For my part, I cannot imagine life without soul food. I grew up in farm country, in Sampson County, NC, where soul food was a part of life. Some of my best memories involve the meats (ham, bacon, BBQ, fried chicken), vegetables (fried or stewed okra, bacon-flavored greens), starches (candied yams, hush puppies, cornbread), and desserts (pies, cobblers) of southern African-American-inspired soul food. While many suburbanites find themselves profoundly grateful for whichever are the trendy urban foods for this particular week (e.g. cucumber sandwiches, fava beans, arugula, or pesto), I’ll reserve my deepest gratitude for the memory of fried chicken, collards, yams, and cornbread. (I’m pretty sure this disqualifies me from being a “foodie”).
Rhythm & Percussion
Rhythm is central and essential to black music. “African Americans,” writes Nelson, “use rhythm to articulate their moral, theological, and philosophical beliefs. Rhythm, the essential element in black music, philosophically communicates ‘religious’ experience in African and African-American culture and helps its ritual participants reach ‘communitas.’” Rhythm is particularly significant for rap because it gives rap its unique movement and momentum. Nelson cites Tricia Rose, who demonstrates that the lowest or fattest beats in a rap song are likely the ones that the most philosophically significant or emotionally charged. Whereas Western music finds its uniqueness in melodic and harmonic structures, African American music finds its uniqueness in rhythmic and percussive structure.
Likewise, percussion is central and essential to black music. Percussive instruments are those that can be struck, slapped, or shaken and include activities that range from playing the drums to the “human beat box.” Nelson notes that black music is not only an activity but a technique that involves the percussive use of the voice. We see it when black gospel singers sing with mouths wide open, making their consonants short and their vowels long and intense. We see it when rappers speak/sing their words by hitching their heavily descriptive and metaphorical lyrics to a distinctive rhythm.
For my part, I love the sounds inspired by the black community, whether those sounds come from gospel choirs, rap, or hip-hop. Allow me to list three ways in which I am grateful. First, gospel choirs. If it weren’t for the black community and their gospel choirs, we Americans would be left with little else but white guys in flannel shirts strumming guitars. And who wouldn’t agree with me that we are far better off having learned from African-American singers how to really “throw down” on a hymn or song?
Second, Christian rap and hip hop. One of the most creative and faithful forms of worship to have arisen in recent years is Christian rap, with rappers like Shai Linne, Trip Lee, and Lecrae unleashing some of the most powerful and profound lyrics available in CCM today. May their tribe increase (I wish I were part of the tribe. But, as a general rule, professors who have no rhythm, possess no percussive skills, and who wear sport coats with elbow patches, aren’t included as part of the tribe. So, unlike Tony Merida or Owen Strachan, you’ll find me watching from the sidelines.)
Third, mainstream rap and hip-hop. While there is much with which to disagree in mainstream rap and hip hop, those art forms have served as powerful venues to entire communities to express their beliefs, feelings, and values. Even when these artists’ music are consciously and profoundly non-Christian, the Christian community is well served to pay attention to these art forms as a way of loving and understanding their neighbors.
Call-Response & Celebration
Nelson builds on the work of linguist Geneva Smitherman to elucidate two aspects of black culture that we see come to fruition in African-American worship services. The first aspect is the communication pattern of “call-and-response,” which involves “the spontaneous verbal and nonverbal interactions between speakers and audiences.” Nelson notes that this aspect helps the community to “establish and maintain spiritual harmony, to maintain a sense of group solidarity, and to validate aesthetic and cultural values.” In worship services, African-Americans one up their white counterparts (“amen, brother”) by actually preaching back to the preacher (“Ha! Help ‘em Lord. That’s the point. Come on!”). The preacher purposely evokes feedback from the congregation, hoping to “wreck” them by making them feel the sermon rather than just hearing it. The call-response aspect meshes well with the celebratory aspect of black worship, which Nelson notes can be compared to a party.
One of the things I love about African-American culture is this celebratory aspect, which can be seen not only in worship services but also in every day laugh. My black friends know how to laugh. They can laugh at themselves and at each other, and can do so without being offensive or being offended. And they sing. They sing alone or in groups, in private or sometimes even in public. I’m not a historian, and I can’t trace this theme of black culture comprehensively or with great precision, but I know this penchant for “laughter and song” stems at least in part from the days in which black Americans were slaves. In the midst of chains, beatings, and poverty, the African-American community was able to experience a sort of redemption and freedom through laughter and song.
God Sacrificed His Son to Display His Glory in Racial Unity
One of my favorite passages in all of Scripture is Revelation 5. In this chapter, God gives the apostle John a breathtaking and beautiful vision of the end times, in which there are Christ-worshipers from among all tribes, tongues, peoples, and nations (5:9). I want to make two points from this chapter, both of which speak to the existence of the African –American community in the United States.
First, God killed his Son in order to achieve racial unity and undercut racial arrogance. At one point in the chapter, as all of heaven’s inhabitants are gathered around the throne, we are told that “they sang a new song, saying: You are worthy to take the scroll, and to open its seals; for You were slain, and have redeemed us to God by Your blood out of every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (5:9). This verse is the culmination of a major theme in Scripture: the God we worship is so profoundly true, so comprehensively good, and so strikingly beautiful that he will find for himself worshipers among every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. If God were worshiped merely by one race of person in the United States, his glory would be diminished. But as it is, he is worshiped both by white Americans and black Americans (and Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans) and this togetherness is an object of God’s delight. Christ shed his blood to win white and black worshipers, so that he could delight in their unified worship. As John Piper puts it, racial unity is first and foremost a “blood of Christ” issue and only secondarily a social or political issue.
Second, we will not know Christ in his full glory until we know him as the King of the Nations. Revelation 5 describes a scene in which Christ is worshiped by every type of person who has ever lived on the face of the earth. He will receive worship not just from every continent, and not just from every country, but from every type of person he has created. And at that moment, in this midst of this unified and universal worship, it will be crystal clear that our God is not some tribal deity who is worshipped in a far corner by a paltry and limited group of people (e.g. white Americans or black Americans). Instead, he is the King of the Nations, whose truth, goodness, and beauty is made known by the combined worship of all his people (both black and white, and other). We will not know him fully until we see him riding in as the King of the Nations. God takes joy in the existence and worship of the African-American community. It makes him deeply happy.
When our churches are racially divided, and when they are monolithically uniracial, we send a message that is diametrically opposed to the gospel. In effect, we say, “Christ is a tribal deity whose gospel is not powerful enough to transcend racial barriers, and whose beauty is not great enough to woo admirers from all races and cultures and teach them to worship together.” For this reason, we need to pray hard and work hard for a powerful display of Christian unity between believers of all races—Caucasian, African-American, Asian-American, Latino, and Native-American. On this year’s Martin Luther King national holiday, may we drop to our knees and pray that God will glorify himself among our churches, and will do so first of all by teaching us to worship him alongside of one another.
 Angela Nelson, “The Repertoire of Black Popular Culture,” in Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 8:1 (Spring 2009).