By Joshua Kim
“Semi-classical tunes, Negro Spirituals and service songs will highlight the Pop concert to be given by the Westhampton and Richmond College glee clubs…” (Collegian, 1942).
On November 13, 1942, The Richmond Collegian featured a small article describing an event in which the Westhampton and Richmond Glee Clubs would host a pop concert featuring a variety of songs, including “Negro Spirituals.” The first question that came to mind was, “Why is a club, composed of white people, singing Negro spirituals?”
Negro spirituals were an integral part of slave culture. Spirituals were a way for black slaves to express their joy, their sorrow, and their hope for freedom. Some argue that spirituals were codified protests of slavery. Perhaps the most famous of these is Go Down, Moses:
“When Israel was in Egypt’s land
Let my people go
Oppress’d so hard they could not stand
Let my People go
Go down, Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
Tell old Pharaoh
Let my people go”
This song was most famously used by Harriet Tubman who used it during her various trips to the South as a means to identify herself to slaves. To slaves, Israel represented the North where they could obtain freedom from the “Pharaoh,” the white slave owner. Tubman was the Moses of her time, traveling way down into Egypt’s land, down the Mississippi, in order to help over 300 slaves escape.
To many, these spirituals hold an intimate story; they weave a tale of peril and suffering, of escape and new life. These spirituals are a testament to the black struggle. They are not for white people, let alone any other race, to sing.
Yet, both glee clubs have a history of singing Negro spirituals — the last archived occasion being in 1955.
This begs the question: Why? Why did these groups of white men and women feel compelled to sing Negro spirituals? What about these spirituals did they identify with?
Today, we face a complex debate on cultural appreciation versus cultural appropriation. From music, to fashion, to even hair styles, the act of white people doing, and being praised for, things that black people have been doing for years has found itself in what seems like every aspect of political discourse.
Although our various acapella groups no longer sing Negro spirituals, this does not mean that our campus is free of this problem of cultural appropriation. In 2016, a white student dressed as a “Native-American” for a Halloween party causing a large debate about cultural appropriation to resurface within the student body.
What these concerts and costumes reveal, however, is not a vehement attack against black people or ethnic minorities in general, but rather an unconcerned ignorance of cultures outside the dominant white culture that has established itself at the University of Richmond.
There is no proof as to whether these students had a certain agenda behind their choices, yet it is very telling of the ignorant nature behind these choices. It is quite problematic when a group of white students, attending a university in the former capital of the Confederacy, decide to sing songs that were inspired by the oppression that black slaves faced under white rule.
Joshua Hasulchan Kim is from Colonial Heights, Virginia. He is a sophomore at the University of Richmond who is double majoring in Journalism and French. Joshua is involved in various clubs on campus: He is the co-president of Block Crew dance crew, the opinions editor for the Collegian newspaper, and is the Co-Director of Operations for the Multicultural Lounge Building Committee. Joshua developed this blog post as part of his work on a Spring 2017 independent study (RHCS 387). He will be continuing his research with the Race & Racism at the University of Richmond Project during Summer 2017 with the support of an A&S Summer Research Fellowship.