The Songs—And The MultiRacial Choir—Shaping Racial Reconciliation

DNC Exclusive: In music created by slaves in the 18th century, one group finds a way to address racism today.

By Rinku Sen Aug 26, 2008

For Claurice McCoy, singing at the Democratic National Convention as the party is about to nominate its first Black Presidential candidate is an indescribable experience.

“I am 74 years old,” she said, “I was born in the South and I can remember back in the day with the colored fountains and the white fountains and you had to stand and sit at the back of the bus. I didn’t think I would ever live to see this day.”

McCoy is one of the founding members of The Spirituals Project Choir, a multiracial, multigenerational choir based in Denver that performs and preserves the melodies and lyrics created by slaves of African descent during the 18th and 19th centuries. McCoy has been a member since the choir’s founding in 1999. Her daughter and granddaughter also sing with the choir, which has 75 members.

In addition to the choir, The Spirituals Project runs a larger program of community education and programming to bring the benefits of the spirituals to contemporary communities. Founder Arthur Jones started recruiting people to help bring the spirituals to new life in 1991. 

“The choir is an ambassador for the mission of the project,” said Jones. “The mission was to educate people about the way in which coming together to sing the songs that enslaved Africans created has the potential not only for personal healing but also for racial reconciliation.”

Jones says its not just the act of singing together, but something about the songs themselves, which were created in a time of such trauma and oppression, and yet are still hopeful and forward looking. In addition to singing together, the choir, and the larger project, provide venues in which people can talk about the racial conflicts in their communities and begin the process of transforming themselves and their neigborhoods.

Focusing on the hard work of reconciliation isn’t always easy, according to Jones.

“When people first come in, its all lovey-dovey,” he said. “People feel that just because they’re coming together in an interracial setting. We have to raise awareness that we’re bringing all of our racial baggage into that situation even when we’re singing.”

Making room for Black members to experience the music differently from others, for example, can be challenging, and there was a time in the early days when it seemed possible that the choir would be all white, rather than fully multiracial as it is today.

The team sang in two venues during the convention. First, they opened Sunday’s religious service with a 15-minute concert, which was interrupted by three white men who had choreographed an anti-abortion protest. Each stood at various times during the performance to shout slogans about Obama supporting abortion. The choir paused, the crowd shouted “Yes, we can!” and Obama’s name, and security quickly escorted the men out.

The second performance took place outdoors as part of the Dialog: City project. It was a collaboration with the installation artist Ann Hamilton and the composer John Kuzuma, involving 3 additional choirs from across Denver. The theme was Circles of O, and the performance featured singers waving O signs in the breeze. The spirituals included "The Welcome Table" and “Down by the Riverside.”

Members do have their favorite songs.

McCoy loves the song “O Freedom” whose words stand out bold and strong: “Before I’ll be a slave, I’ll be buried in my grave.”

Kaati Ross, 23, loves “Hear My Prayer,” which asks God to give grace and Christine Chao was especially struck by the line “We ain’t gonna study war no more.”

“We’re making war, not only in Iraq, but also on our own citizens here,” she said. “That’s what the African American ancestors told us. We have to study… we have to think about it, not just say, ‘We’re going to defeat somebody’.”

Rinku Sen is the author of The Accidental American, which hits bookstores on Sept. 11.