A study of the Afro-American oral tradition with special reference to the formal aspects of the poetry of spirituals.
This dissertation is a study of the Afro-American oral tradition with special reference to the formal aspects of the poetry of spirituals. In the introduction. an attempt has been made to take a look at the value of oral tradition; the interplay between oral and written tradition; the use made of orality in a society that was denied conventional literacy; the concept and the definition of the term, “spiritual". The organization of the rest of the essay is as follows: The sections are divided into four chapters. The first chapter concerns the origins of Afro-American spirituals and the anthropological foundations of the Afro-American oral style (anthropology of gesture). In addition, an attempt has been made to place the Afro-American oral tradition vis-a-vis the African oral tradition. The second chapter deals with key characteristics in the expressive phase of the Afro-American slave community with special reference to the dynamics of language usage. In the third chapter, there is consideration in some detail on the Afro-American oral composer and the transmission of the spirituals in an oral style milieu. The fourth chapter investigates stylized expression and is devoted to analyses of mnemotechnical devices within the spirituals. In the concluding chapter, an attempt has been made to take an overall look at Afro-American sacred poetic achievement. I must point out that it is not my intention to embark on any technical analysis of the music form and configuration of the spirituals - that is beyond the scope of this essay. In including "representative" samples of spirituals (and portions of spirituals), I do not intend them to be seen as "islands unto themselves" but rather, each spiritual must be seen as part of the whole corpus of Afro-American sacred oral composition. The question may arise: "Why a study of the Afro-American spirituals when there is so much to be studied on the oral traditions of Southern Africa? My response would be that the spirituals fascinate me for I see in them their widespread influence on the Pentecostal and Charismatic movements in South Africa. The Gospel song, so beloved of Pentecostal congregations, is an heir to the Spiritual. An enquiry on the sacred music and performance styles (improvisation, extemporization, dance, handclapping, shouts, etc.) of Pentecostalism will reveal that much of the Afro-American oral style still exists within the fellowship of Black and, venture to say, all Pentecostal churches in South Africa with obvious nuances that vary from denomination to denomination. But, the spirited and lively sacred music is encouraged and preserved.