Giovanni's students form slave
choir; concert scheduled for April 21
By Sally Harris
Spectrum Volume 20 Issue 28 - April 16, 1998
It was illegal, punishable by whipping, being sold, or even being killed; but gathering together when the spirit moved the slaves to offer praise was so much a part of their spirit that they sneaked off to "hush harbors" to sing songs about their tribulations and their faith.
Students in Nikki Giovanni's Black Aesthetics class at Virginia Tech could read about hush harbors--the fields or swamps away from the slave-owner's house where the slaves could sing their traditional spirituals. The students could research the conditions of slavery that made it illegal for slaves to congregate without a white person present. They could see the spirituals printed in books.
But Giovanni wanted them to feel the issue, not just think it. So, from her class of 12, she formed a slave choir and will present it in concert Tuesday, April 21, at 6:30 p.m. at the Black Cultural Center in Squires. The singing is open to the public at no charge, and the audience will be invited to join in the songs.
"The main difference between a gospel choir and a slave choir is that the slave choir does not have instruments," Giovanni said. Because illiteracy was enforced among slaves, the spirituals were simple in nature, Giovanni said. "There was never anything complicated because they were made for people who had to hear it and give it right back."
In her course on black aesthetics, as well as in the Harlem Renaissance class, Giovanni emphasizes the achievements of black people. Many people, she said, assume that the poor black slaves did not know what they were doing when they sang praises, since it could earn them harsh punishments. "But I don't think it was a mistake," Giovanni said. "Let's assume it wasn't a mistake--and then you have to respect the cultures these people created.
"I think it's highly unusual, if you're enslaved, that you'd find a way to sing. But they said, `All is well with my soul, whatever my lot in life,' and they created what would sustain their soul. You realize, `My God, what an achievement! That's up there with any cathedral, any army conquering, anything, but they were not killing; they were elevating.' It's a wonder they didn't despair, but they created something. They created a culture and changed a religion."
The slave choir, led by April Neblett, is called The Denmark Vesey Voices. The drum was taken away from the slaves in 1735 after the aborted revolution of Denmark Vesey and his men and women to win their freedom. The choir will be joined by 10 members of another small campus choir, the Enlightened Gospel Choir, in the concert of traditional and gospel songs.