Future Readings for the Course: The Divides Exposed in Music

Earlier, we discussed the symbolism of the train in Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Reverend J.M. Gates’ “Death’s Black Train is Coming,” along with a secondary article, John M. Giggie’s After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915. These readings and listenings led me to explore religion in the delta. To understand faith in the delta, one must understand the importance of the blues, but, as Mississippi Public Broadcasting Reporter Alexandra Watts notes, “to know the blues, you need to know the history of the delta,” as discussed in this podcast:

In this podcast, Watts details the story of the blues in the delta, particularly the life of Robert Johnson. In Johnson’s lifetime, community members of Greenwood, MS, where Johnson grew up, thought of the blues as “devil’s music,” which contrasts to the origins of many musicians in the area, as Sylvester Hoover, a local historian and grocery store owner, notes that”

If you are a black musician, Robert Johnson, B.B King, I don’t care who you are, you start playing your music in the Baptist church. On Sunday, I’ll be singing ‘nobody knows my God. How my God makes me fell’ and when you leave the church and go to the juke and start playing your music on Saturday, it’s ‘my baby’ ‘Nobody knows my baby. How my baby makes me feel.’ It’s the same music just change God, Jesus, and church, to baby and honey on Saturday nights, and that’s why they say you sold your soul to the devil


As shown above, the blues seems to hold a unique divide between the religious and secular. Earlier, I wrote about the symbolism of the train in film, music, and literature to represent the divide between the community and the individual. I think a further exploration of blues music would shine a light on multiple “crossroads” in the class, such as religion/secular and the individual/community.

One song that is an example of that further exploration is the song “Like a Ship” by Pastor T.L. Barrett and the Youth Christ Choir (1971). I choose this song because the opening lyrics start with T.L. Barrett singing “I’m not worried because I know” while the choir sings, “I know we can take it” (1:00). This relationship between the singular and plural is a broader example of the divides that music explores, such as the individual and community. While this is not blues music, it is still a musical avenue I would be interested in learning about more.

The Relationship between the City and Self: An Analysis of Critical Article #1

In “The Tale of Two Cities in James Baldwin’s Go Tell it on the Mountain,” Charles Scruggs of the University of Arizona argues that while many view Baldwin’s work as a Bildungsroman or as a particular sociological or psychological conflict, Baldwin places his characters in a “recognizable intellectual tradition” a tradition of “the city as an idea” (1). Baldwin, however, uses the cities to expand on numerous conflicts within the book as “Baldwin juxtaposes two cities, the earthly and the heavenly, and together they help to focus the novel’s various themes: father and son, individual and community, the sacred and the profane” (2). The two cities that Baldwin conceptually juxtaposes are Harlem and New York.

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay 

In my opinion, I found the point which Scruggs makes in the second part of the article regarding how Richard and Elizabeth reflected New York with their own personal experiences, especially regarding the south, as “For Elizabeth, it meant release from a tyrannical aunt; for Richard, from a racist society” (10). For me, I live in the north and the south and I enjoy how Baldwin relies on earlier traditions of the conception of the city to shine a light on the individual as an Augustinian perspective views that one “is capable of achieving a heavenly city within [themselves]” (2). Scruggs goes on to point out that “Elizabeth viewed New York as a refuge for her innocent love, and Richard imagined it as a crucible containing the intellectual and aesthetic heritage of Civilization” (10). If you get a chance to watch “I am not your Negro” the James Baldwin documentary, it is interesting to see the role of the city, from the past and the present in presenting an image of Baldwin’s life.

Regarding Prompt 13, I am interested to see how the verse “He made me a watchman / Upon a city wall / And if I am a Christian / I am the least of all” fits with Scruggs’ critical article which as the city wall emerges in an Augustinian tradition of the wall within an individual that separates the inner heavenly city from the “evil forces outside” (2). Scruggs proposes that the city wall within this text serves as a divide between Harlem and the church, so the wall is point of divide within the book as John struggles to cope with the divide that is created by this socially constructed wall.

“A shame…for the Church”: Exploring Society’s impact on religion and family

Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay

In “Homophobia and Heterosexism in the Black Church and Community,” Kelly Brown Douglas “outline[s] the general contours of [Black homophobia] as it seeks to understand the relationship between Black homophobia and Black oppression, particularly the exploitation of Black sexuality” (998). Responses to sexuality, as also pointed out by Angela Davis, in the black community, are heavily shaped and “refracted by White culture” (998). Douglas’s focus on the relationship between homosexuality and the Black family is an intriguing point, as the film “Nothing but a Man” proposes the importance of family within Black communities. Still, Douglas’s adds to the understanding of White cultural attacks against Black families, such as the Moynihan report. In response to attacks, Douglas points out that the Black community “advocates White family norms,” norms which construct a family model “more acceptable in white patriarchal and heterosexist society” (1008). How would this more in-depth understanding of white culture’s attacks against the family add to our knowledge of “Nothing but a Man?” One of Douglas’s points that I want to explore is the relationship between text and oral traditions in culture. It appears there is a social factor within that relationship because Black communities echo stories from the Bible “that have served Black people well in their struggle for life and freedom” (1003). I want to explore further the relationship between texts and oral traditions within varying cultures.

The information provided in the second prompt regarding the story of Ruth and Naomi along with the contextual evidence of “Blessed Assurance” enhances an understanding of Hughes’s tale as it shows a disconnection not between the church and the text, but between the church and community members, such as John. This disconnection between John and the church is heightened with a rapidly chaining urban landscape, as shown with the disintegration of his marriage, when his wife went to live with a wealthy man with political ties in South Philadelphia and Harlem, which leaves John commenting that the departure was “a shame for his children, for the church, and for him” (1). There are various instances of a rapidly chaining society, such as implementing jazz music in church, globalization, as Delmar wishes to travel to France for his studies, and changes within American masculinity as Delmar shifts away from traditional American sports, such as football. The societal forces that are rapidly changing at this time show that the disconnection is not between the church and religion, but more so community members struggling to find closure within the church.

“And am I less to You, my God, than they?”: Poetic forms for Understanding the Self

Image by StockSnap from Pixabay 

In “Very Many Hands,” Aaron Coleman establishes the landscape for his book, “Threat Come Close,” a collection of poems, by understanding the stories and experiences of migrants ancestors in various geographic areas, such as Mississippi, San Diego, and Detroit. By exploring ancestral migrant locations of the past, Coleman identifies a form for this poem “that always speaks to [him].” In the poem, Coleman writes, “I am made of what I am afraid to remember,” as he then asks, “Come tell me more about what I was.” By creating a form of poetically understanding the migrants’ journey, Coleman reflects on himself, as he writes, “I am stitched together with the risk inside Desire,” which leads to further questions: “Who was it? Who watched as I stood there too in line, too silent, trying to fall behind, an almost question in my near-new eyes?”
With each self-reflection, more questions arise that strive to learn about those “very many hands” of the past.

With this idea that Coleman provides of “how form can help speak in a certain way,” I’m interested to learn how we can learn about some of the other poems provided, such as “Ice Storm” by Robert Hayden. This poem consists of three stanzas. The first stanza appears to be within the thoughts of the speaker as they are “unable to sleep, or pray, [but] stand by the window looking out at moonstruck trees [as] a December storm has bowed with ice” The form of the poem then shifts to a description of nature as cracked maple, and ash branches struggle to withstand the icy surroundings and end up falling on the soft snow. The third stanza seems to act almost like a confrontation between nature and the speaker, as the speaker questions to God, ” am I less to You, my God, than they?”
This poem’s form of self reflection, descriptions of nature, and confrontation,  seems to help the speaker understand their relationship with God more clearly. How do you think poets use form in poetry to understand themselves better?

“With this camera?” “Yeah, with my camera”: Spike Lee and Chris McNair’s Journey through Photography

Mr. and Mrs. Chris McNair hold a picture of their daughter, Denise, 11, in Birmingham, September 16, 1963, as they tell a newsman about the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. One day earlier, Denise and three other girls died in the blast while attending Sunday school. McNair operates a commercial photo studio. (AP Photo/stf)

I saw that the negative was way overexposed and I never worried about it any more until after she died. And, I went back to the negatives and I reduced it and then made a print of it, and I realized what a jewel I had. 

-Chris McNair regarding a photo of Denise McNair (4 Little Girls).

After watching and reading these articles, I argue  that Spike Lee’s “4 Little Girls,” as Valerie Smith notes, “is much more about the communal context as it is about the four young women.” By widening the lens onto the entire community, Lee captures a broader life picture of Addie, Carole, Carol, and Cynthia, and shines a light on the structural racism and hate prevalent in 1950s Birmingham, Alabama, forces that persist to this day.             

 To reveal who these girls were and what life in Birmingham was like, Lee needs help. That help is Chris McNair, father of Denise McNair. As told by Valerie Smith in her book chapter “Remembering Birmingham Sunday: Spike Lee’s 4 Little Girls,” “Lee says he knew that he needed Mr. McNair’s cooperation to get the other relatives to go along.” This revelation by Lee shows that McNair is not any ordinary member of the community, but an “important symbol of the community’s ability to heal and flourish even after traumatic loss” (Smith 190). For Lee’s purposes as a director and documentarian, McNair is the primary person who can help Lee understand the more extensive, social, and political forces that made Birmingham the center of the Civil Rights Era. By understanding the lives of Addie Mae Collins, 14, Denise McNair, 11 Carole Robertson, 14, Cynthia Wesley, 14, Lee understands the story of Birmingham.   

However, how does Chris serve as a double with Spike in understanding his daughter and Birmingham? The answer to this question lies in the importance of photographs. In the “Civil Rights Movement in American History,” Leigh Raiford and Renee C. Romano look for one question, “how should the Civil Rights figures, events, and accomplishments be memorialized in contemporary American life and what is at stake in how they are portrayed in the arena of popular culture” (xii). In contemporary American life, the 1963 Birmingham Church Bombing is remembered through the photos of the four girls, as included below

Denise McNair, 11; Carole Robertson, 14; Addie Mae Collins, 14; and Cynthia Wesley, 14; from left, are shown in these 1963 photos. A former Ku Klux Klansman, Thomas Blanton Jr., 62, was convicted of murder Tuesday, May 1, 2001, for the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church bombing that killed the four girls on Sept. 15, 1963. (AP Photo)

While these images are engrained in the memory of the Civil Rights Era, they do not tell the story of who these four women were and the lives they lived in Birmingham, or, as Smith puts it, “time is frozen for Addie Mae, Cynthia, Carole, and Denise, forever imprisoned in the image of their childhood and adolescent photographs.” Lee and McNair attempt to break free from this imprisonment and help the victims “come alive as individuals, as Romano suggests.

The scene within the film where this is most evident is at 1:29:30 when McNair and Lee are analyzing a photo of Denise that is less known in a broader societal understanding. With the film attempting to see past the photographs, Lee and Mcnair attempt to understand, analyze, and connect to Denise’s life. As Smith puts it:

Here, McNair positions himself as a documentarian, an artist who takes an image, even one that is flawed, and fashions it into both an expression of his creative talent and a piece of the historical record. This moment in the film suggests a correspondence between Lee’s work as director and McNair’s as photographer and points to the collaborative nature of their common enterprise.

Despite being a documentarian throughout this film, this moment touches on the lost and distant love Chris McNair and Denise had. Throughout this film, you can see the brutal oppression that the McNair, Robertson, Collin, and Wesley families had to face within Birmingham before and after the bombing that stole their loved ones. By seeing past the photographs, we truly understand the racism and hate that plagued Birmingham then and now.

God’s Newspaper turned into an Invasive Institution

Reporter interviewing one of the Little Rock Nine 1957. Photo by Burt Glinn.
Courtesy of History Collection

In the early stages of Warriors Don’t Cry, the newspaper is seen as an everyday part of Melba’s life as Will Patillo, her father, “sat in the brown leather chair, reading his newspaper and working his crossword puzzles,” and Grandmother India “peer[ed] over the book and newspaper” to greet Melba (Beals 2-4). Melba even writes about the religious importance of the newspaper, in her diary:

It’s important for me to read the newspaper, every single day God sends, even if I have to spend my own nickel to buy it. I have to keep up with what the men on the Supreme Court are doing.

(Beals 5).

When Melba is selected to attend Central High school, however, the newspaper, like much of Little Rock society, starts to become an extremely invasive force on her family, particularly the Arkansas Gazette. Although many argue that the newspaper serves as a potential character in this novel, I tend to view the newspaper as an institution attempting to understand, report, and track the story of The Little Rock Nine’s integration into Central High.

While stepping outside for a fire drill at central high, Melba notes that “photographers and news reporters scrambled about, taking pictures and vying for scraps of information about how we were being received in class” (Beals 19). This is an early example of the news starting to really interact with Melba and learn more about her experiences, such as the phrase “vying for scraps of information.” The presence of news groups also appears when Melba “approached Mrs. Bates home [and] saw news reporters [, and her] headache started up again.” This quotation shows the intense pressure that the news starts to put on Melba.

As the pressure from the news increase, Melba starts to distance herself from the them as:

The articles gave specific information on what our homes were like, our backgrounds, our hobbies, our aspirations-all there was to know about us. I began to regret that exposure. Students didn’t let up for one minute chirping about my folks, my mother’s teaching, and things I considered personal and sacred


The newspapers are starting to be used by segregationist to harm Melba and her family, which shows society’s ability to damage the relationship between Melba and God, as Melba previously referred to newspapers as being sent by God. As the newspaper headlines become harsher and more invasive: “STEP UP RUMORS, INCIDENTS, COMPLAINS NOTED AT SCHOOL,” it is noticed that the majority of these headlines come from the Arkansas Gazette.

According to the UA Little Rock Center for Arkansas History and Culture, “Arkansas Gazette editor and owner John Netherland Heiskell believed that a newspaper was an institution first.” When Melba learned that the Gazette received a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on the Little Rock Nine, Melba stated that

As I read this article, I wondered when we would get big prizes for what we were doing. After all, this guy was just observing our troubles from afar and writing about them. Not once did I see him spend a day in hell with us

At this point, the relationship that Melba once had with Newspapers seems to be broken. I’m curious to explore how newspapers as institutions impacted the relationship that Melba had with newspapers before her time at central high, the Newspapers were sent from God

“A Culture of Orality” in a Troubled Southern Society: Understanding Where John is Truly Leaving for in “Jonah’s Gourd Vine.”

As John makes is way to Alf Pearson’s plantation, he hears a sound which rattles his conscience, as the rumbling of a locomotive thunders by (Hurston, p.15). Astonished, by the “fiery-lunged monster, John tries to find words, but they allude him, “Ah lakted dat. It say something but Ah ain’t heered it” (Hurston, p. 16). Transfixed by the powerful train, John pledges to learn more, “Ahm comin’ yeah plenty mo’ times and den Ah tell yuh whut it say” (Hurston, p. 16). This seen serves as a frame for Professor Gary Ciuba’s argument in “The Worm Against the Word: The Hermeneutical Challenge in Hurston’s “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” (2000). In his article, Cuba argues that the process of John finding himself through oral and written traditions in African-American literature is based through the use of hermeneutics, as seen through his hermeneutical endeavor to understand his journey and experiences through writing and oral skills, even though he ultimately fails (Cuba, p. 120).

From a sociological perspective, hermeneutics is the process of understanding one’s pre-existing internal prejudices while interpreting literature. This technique for learning is used with biblical texts and ancient texts such as the works of Plato.

This form of understanding the self through, as Paul Ricoeur puts it, “signs, symbols and texts” in African-American literature is the central argument of Ciuba’s work, but I disagree with his interpretation of John crossing the river as a moment when “Nature’s own percussion sounds his full membership in the culture of orality, where speech is filled with power, and the cosmos is ‘an ongoing event with man at its center’ (One 73) (Ciuba, p. 120). I view the crossing of the creek in the lens of scholar’s Hazel Carby, Martyn Bone, and Riché Richardson who focus on the role of migration in Hurston’s work.I agree with Ciuba that John crossing the river is a significant event, but I do not believe that he is being introduced to the culture of orality, but rather a broader southern society with many faults. I believe that the stark contrast between John crossing the creek on pages 12 and 86 represent the faults in John’s life and Southern society that are evident in the work between these two events. How would you interpret John crossing the river on pages 12 and 86?



“Train I Ride:” The Downfall of the Train in Twentieth Century African American Religious Perspectives of the Mississippi Delta

In the early twentieth century, the symbolism of the train in the Mississippi Delta was at the center of African American religious perspectives. As noted in John M. Giggie’s After Redemption: Jim Crow and the Transformation of African American Religion in the Delta, 1875-1915, “the practice of constructing both institutional and individual spiritual journeys from elements of train travel laid the groundwork the development of a new part of the oral tradition in black religion during the early twentieth century, the chanted railroad sermon.” This new form of sermon is seen in Reverend J. M. Gates’s Death’s Black Train Is Coming. While the train was the the core of African American religion, this would all change in the 1920s. In King Vidor’s Hallelujah, the chanted railroad sermon, as embodied by Ezekiel the prophet’s express, is not able to persevere in the face of 1920’s social movements, the jazz age and flappers. Through Zeke’s failure to overcome these movements, the train loses its central position as a symbol in African American religion, as shown in later pieces of music from the Mississippi Delta.

Our first glimpse of the train in Hallelujah is seen at 49:49 when Ezekiel the Prophet’s railroad car roars into the Delta community of Greenville, Mississippi, with a crowd singing a chorus of a spiritual journey,

“Get on board, get on board, o’ children get on board”

As the crowd cheers, Ezekiel the prophet declares to the crowd,

The service is here to give you a campaign ride to glory

This moment of the film symbolizes the chanted railroad sermon at its peak and represents the importance of the train in African American religion in the heart of the Delta. The symbolism of the train is seen again in Ezekiel’s service in the woods. Ezekiel refers to a train called cannonball, which, as Ezekiel puts it, “is leaving for hell today.” (59:01). During this service, Ezekiel impersonates a train and conductor, which Giggie points to as traditional for railroad sermons 

“They followed a common pattern, beginning with spoken prose but swiftly moving to a rhythmic cadence punctuated by cries of encouragement from the audience. They usually climaxed in a near tonal chant, (p.51) when the preacher successfully brought the listeners to their feet, singing and swaying with him. Beginning in the 1900s though, ministers included bells, horns, and whistles into their chanted sermons and mimicked the boom of a conductor’s voice as devices to enliven their delivery, order its tempo, and pace its lyrics” (Giggie p. 27).

Given Giggie’s analysis, we see that the train was a central symbol of Ezekiel the prophet’s career. While Zeke’s career as a prophet is briefly successful and his influence is seen throughout the delta, trouble is followed shortly after, as seen in the character Chick. King Vidor uses the character Chick to embody the movements of the 1920s. The jazz age is seen with the performance of jazz music in the film and the flapper movement is seen with the resemblance of Chick to flappers of the 1920s. When Zeke’s career as a preacher comes to an end, it is due to his desire for Chick. Through Zeke’s downfall as a preacher, we see that the African American religious perspective which focuses on the symbolism of the train, is unable to withstand the social movements of the 1920s. So where does this leave trains in the culture of the Mississippi Delta?

To look into this question, I have identified two songs that could show us the symbolism of the train in the Delta from the 1950s to the present. The first song I am looking into is called “Mystery Train,” written by Junior Parker in 1953. 

Recording of Mystery Train

“Little” Junior Parker was born in the small Delta town of Bobo, Mississippi, located in Coahoma County. While the train is a major symbol in this song, it does not have the same religious undertone of Hallelujah and Death’s Black Train is Coming, as seen in the lyrics

Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Train I ride, sixteen coaches long
Well that long black train carry my baby belong

Train train, comin’ around the bend
Train train, comin’ around the bend
Well it took my baby, is gone do it again

Train train, comin’ on down the line
Train train, comin’ on down the line
Well it’s bringin’ my baby, ’cause she’s mine, all mine

Little Junior Parker’s Mystery Train

Through these lyrics, we find that the train still focuses on individual journey’s, but I would argue that the journey is not based on religion as much as it’s based on personal stories that do not directly involve religion. The symbolism of the train away from religion is also seen in more contemporary art from delta musicians, such as Jimmy “Duck” Holmes’ Train Train (2019).

Jimmy “Duck” Holmes is based in the delta town of Bentonia, Mississippi. Through his lyrics, we also found that the train is used more in personal stories rather than religious messages.

Tell me one train ran at midnight

Yeah they tell me one train ran at midnight

One train, ran just before day

I wonder and I wonder

Would train carry my gal away?

Verse from Train Train

At the beginning of the 20th century, we find that the symbolism of the train was largely based in institutional and individual spiritual journeys, shown in chanted religious sermons. Through social movements of the 1920s, we see that that the symbolism of the train, along with African American religion as a whole, changes, as foreshadowed in King Vidor’s Hallelujah. In the later half of the twentieth century to the present, the train has moved away from its religious position and now symbolizes the personal struggles of an individual.