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Grief in Ex-African American Slaves

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What early Africans realized is human beings are endowed with certain universal longings, feelings, and passions so encompassing as to be "laws." Thus, they made a place for sorrows expressed in all sorts of songs, dance, delusions, and dramatic tricks to either appease or control the spirits. One Ancient African practice was patching grief with proverbs. All of these methods continued in the Slaves and the ex-Slaves but were creatively manifested in new arrangements, combinations, and forms. Also, what started during slavery continued as customs in the newly freed Slaves. Strongly influential in this regard was assimilation of the African world view with Euro-Americans' bad system of values. Hence, whatever African world view residuals were retained by the Slaves and ex-Slaves became diluted and polluted by assimilation, thereby fashioning inconsistencies and confusions, especially related to power and its source and control (Sobel, Trabelin' On p39).

Pervading was the delusion of the inferiority of the Black Sacred Cosmos and the ridiculous concept of superiority of the contrived European Sacred Cosmos. Out of this emerged an Afro-Christian world view for the Grieving Complex. But it lacked the effectiveness of the one for African Tradition. Its ineffectiveness displayed in the frequenct occurrence of "Fixed Melancholy"--a term applied to the Slaves who, in the first few weeks of their enslavement, gave up their will to live--a form of immobilizing apathy (Blassingame, Slave Community p7). In Brazil, “banzo” was the term for Slaves who died of melancholy (moody, anxious, rigid, sober, pessimistic, reserved, unsociable, quiet, and often sad mindset) or even killed themselves--similar to the Indians who, rather than submit to the Europeans, simply ate earth until they died (Freyre, p. 159).

The most obvious expression of Grief by the Slaves and ex-Slaves was in their Negro Spirituals and "Sorrow Songs"--songs of a folk, created by a folk, and giving emotional voice to the emotional life of a folk. Slaves sang most when they were most unhappy—songs reflecting sorrow of their hearts--songs bringing relief in the way an aching heart is relieved by its tears. They served as an emotional source of solace, diversion, strength, hope, and determination. While viewed as unmeaning jargon to Whites, Slave songs sung as a chorus were full of hidden meaning to themselves: “I am going away to the Great House Farm! O, yea! O, yea! O!” (Fishel, The American Negro, p116). Negro Spirituals are the most beautiful folk songs of sorrow found in musical literature. They were "forged of sorrow in the heat of religious fervor" with the intention of "transforming the spear of frustration into a shaft of light." The "Lower South" type is intensely sad and reflects the dread of being sold into deeper slavery "down the river" (into the Mississippi Delta area). The "Upper South" Spirituals are somewhat less sorrowful. Sorrow Songs expressed the discontent of the Slaves with their earthly lot and with revenge on Whites hidden by symbolism--as with the wrathful God or Moses. They were (and are) generally sung in slow tempi, plaints weighted down with burdens, troubles, and deprivations of Slave existence, such as "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," "Keep Me from Sinking Down," "Poor Me," "Nobody Knows De Trouble I See," and "All My Troubles Soon Be Over" (Shaw, Black Popular Music p11). Later, "Blues"--a form of secular music--sprang from melancholic reflections on love, disappointments, longings, and frustrations of a worldly nature.

During and after slavery terroist White males, as a result of their "killing sprees," ensured layered grieving occurred everyday for Black People. Slaves and ex-Slaves, like their African Ancestors, took death seriously and therefore placed great emphasis on mourning and funerary rites of passage. As a newspaper boy I saw in homes of bereaved owners the exact preservation in the home as the deceased left it. To me, it seemed like a “shrine” which “mummified” the deceased's spirit.


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