“MARY, don’t you weep. Oh Papa don’t you moan,” goes the old Negro spiritual’s first few lines. For me, these hymns evoke spirituality and resistance simultaneous to the reality of slaves—the progenitors of American music. Like Mary’s tears, these hymns are a meditation on one’s lot in life—whatever that life may be. At least on the surface, Christianity was the religion that the composers of these spirituals sang, in order to survive. The slave shared this religion with even the most brutal slave master, one who liberally dealt lashes, forced slaves to breed like steed, regularly raped women after placating himself by giving her trinkets to disguise his monstrosity, and then effortlessly sold babies from these mothers’ arms. An unspeakable number of men were also sexually brutalized, yet this corner of history is rarely discussed.
As slavery began to run its course, more and more black men were brutalized and castrated by mobs of entire white families. The white children who were forced to witness these atrocities must have been terrified to watch their fathers, grandfathers, uncles, and neighbors stuffing the mutilated genitals of a black man into his mouth, choking out the last bit of life from the brutalized body as it swung from the tree. Lyrics of resistance remind us: “Here is fruit for the crows to pluck, for the rain to gather, for the wind to suck, for the sun to rot, for the trees to drop. Here is a strange and bitter crop” (from Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”).