“This whole week, I’ve been reflecting on this idea of grace,” said President Obama, before his eulogy morphed into a spontaneous rendition of “Amazing Grace,” at the funeral of the late South Carolina State Senator Rev. Clementa Pinckney, who was murdered along with eight of his parishioners at Emanuel A.M.E Church in Charleston, S.C. Broadcasted live on various media outlets, President Obama’s rendition of the all-too-familiar hymn set social media ablaze. Almost a week later, the massacre has become an unfortunate tragic memory, yet, President Obama’s singing of this song is still headline news. Listening as anchors rave about the gravity of the moment, I question why my fellow Black brethren continue to sing “Amazing Grace.” As one journalist asserted, “Obama performed a familiar trope that united his immediate audience – mostly black church-goers – with their history, that joined himself to that history, and that staged social solidarity among the musicians and the singing congregation.” Is this song our history?
Growing up in rural Alabama and attending an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E) church, I heard various forms of sacrosanct music sung throughout the week at my grandparent’s home and during the worship service on any given Sunday. Hymns would be sung, virtually unchanged from the worn hymnals. Old Negro Spirituals, made internationally famous by troupes like the Fisk Jubilee Singers, expressed in the dialect of our enslaved African ancestors. They would sing songs like “Wade in the Water” and “Steal Away” seemingly unaware of the double entendre at play. There would also be gospel singing which, would usually take the form of quartet singing, a staple among rural southerners. However, “Amazing Grace” was omnipresent.
We all, with a sense of longing to be connected to a homeland lost, assumed that by lifting our voices in praise of the goodness of God would bring us closer not only to an ancestral home, but also higher spiritual being. While I understand the connection Black people have to the aforementioned songs, “Amazing Grace” presents a conundrum. Written by John Newton, a redeemed Englishman, who in the early part of his life was an outspoken atheist and slave trader, the song still represents the evils of humanity. He was born in London in 1725, the son of a Puritan mother and a stern ship commander father. By the mid-1700s, Newton was enlisted in the slave trade, transporting enslaved Africans to, ironically enough, Charleston, S.C. After he survived a storm at sea, he found comfort and faith in God. Although he was later ordained an Anglican priest and became active in the English abolitionist movement, does his personal story of redemption transcend generations and racial barriers? Considering the writer of the song was a conspirator in the death and enslavement of countless enslaved Africans, is it possible for an analytical mind to wholeheartedly sing “Amazing Grace” in moments of sacred worship?
Perhaps the previous questions are posed in an attempt to quell the apprehension I am stricken with when predominantly Black congregations sing the song. My apprehension often leads to an annoyance by the end of the song. I have presented this problem to others, who often express that my sensitivities rests in the fact that I am a staunch race man. Yes, it is true that I am PRO-BLACK; however, I find this embrasure of a song authored by a slave trader illogical. If we, as Black congregations, want to sing about God delivering us from dark places and difficult trials—Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing would be a start!
Kyle R. Fox
To the Media:
A Black man singing “Amazing Grace” is not revolutionary. Nor will it calm racial tensions!
Kyle R. Fox is a two time graduate of The University of Alabama, from where he holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Political Science and Gender/Race Studies and a Master’s Degree in Communication Studies. Currently, Kyle is pursuing a PhD in Humanities/African American Studies at Clark Atlanta University. His research focuses on the construction of identity and the influence of religious narratives upon African American literary productions.