The English Rugby Football Union is debating whether or not to ban the singing of the spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as an anthem by its spectators. Although the hymn was apparently adopted by crowds as a way of honouring the achievement of black players, it is being described as ‘controversial’ and ‘problematic’ because of its links with slavery.
Swing Low, Sweet Chariot was indeed written by a former slave, Wallace Willis, though he was hardly a stereotypical one. He was the property of the Choctaw Nation of Native Americans, who ran plantations with slave labour in Oklahoma. The Choctaw sided with the Confederacy in the Civil War, and were obliged to manumit their slaves after the war as part of a treaty with the US government signed in 1866. Thus, Willis became a ‘freedman’ of the Choctaw nation.
Why should a song of anguish and hope from the past be something to censor in the present? The spiritual is seen as problematic by those who regard its expressions of longing and pain as a gesture of defeatist passivity, resigned to bondage as an inevitable condition of life, to be relieved only by death and the entry into heaven. This interpretation plays into the narrative of Christianity as an instrument of imperialist subjugation, designed to pacify the oppressed into submission: the opium of the masses. It fails to take account of both the political and religious significance of such songs in their time.
The chariot in the hymn is of course drawn from the prophecy of Ezekiel (Ezek. 1), linking American slavery with that of the Jews in Babylonian captivity. The motif of crossing the Jordan invokes the escape of the Israelites from slavery among the Egyptians, the liberation from bondage, the entry into the Promised Land. In the American South it denoted travelling the ‘underground railroad’, and crossing over into the freedom of the North. Frederick Douglass, former slave, Abolitionist and author of My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), wrote of the singing of spirituals:
A keen observer might have detected in our repeated singing of ‘O Canaan, sweet Canaan, I am bound for the land of Canaan,’ something more than a hope of reaching heaven. We meant to reach the North, and the North was our Canaan.
Similarly Harriet Tubman recalled that spirituals such as Go Down Moses operated as a code for escaping to the North (quoted in Sarah H. Bradford, Harriet Tubman: The Moses of Her People (1886). Here Jewish and Christian prophecy and Apocalyptic were not tools of oppression, but instruments of liberation. They gave enslaved black people a grammar of aspiration, enabled them to imagine a better place, in the here and now, as well as in the beyond. In the words of another spiritual:
I’ll meet you in the morning
When you reach the promised land
On the other side of the Jordan
For I’m bound for the promised land.
When Martin Luther King delivered his great speech ‘I have a dream’ in 1963 he was drawing on exactly this same tradition, using the Old Testament story of liberation from bondage and arrival in the promised land as a prophecy of the future in which all people of all colours could expect the same justice and equality. When, in Martin Luther King’s words,
all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!
Is there a better way of remembering slavery than by keeping alive in those spiritual hymns and songs the hope that burned in the hearts of the people in bondage?
(The famous motif by Josiah Wedgewood reproduced here, which became a slogan of the Abolitionist movement, is also regarded as ‘problematic’ since it identifies the black slave, manacled hands raised in supplication, pleading for help from his ‘white saviours’. Many are probably unaware that the fashionable gesture of ‘taking the knee’ replicates this pose, while replacing the clasped hands with the straight arm and clenched fist of the 1960s ‘Black Power’ movement).