In our ESL Conversation Class at Revere Community School we were discussing our morning routines. It’s Ramadan for the Muslim students, and they described how they eat before sunrise, and they described their salaat regimen. A Serbian student, Brancha(Socialist), spoke of her health food diet. A Puerto Rican Sister, Johanna, Evangelical, sits her three children down at the breakfast table, she leads them in prayer, and her husband blesses the food before they start eating.
I spoke of the spirituals I listen to from the plantation, enslaved Africans singing freedom songs. I broke down the word spiritual into two parts — spirit (“a connection to Great Order in the Universe, God, Allah”) and ritual — the regular, intentional practice of connecting. I spoke of the Moses-splitting-the-waters story, with which most of the students were familiar. And I used two songs, “Wade in the Water,” and “Mary, Don’t’ You Weep,” and we talked about metaphor. Most students understood what metaphor is. Of those who didn’t understand were New YoRican-, Haitian Creole- and Cabo Verde Creole-speakers — other students explained it to them in their languages.
I then applied the metaphor of Moses to the actual spiritual practice of the enslaved Africans disguising their call for the guerillas, Harriet Tubman, et al, to come by (Kumbaya), chop off massa’s head if necessary, and get them to the nearest stream so that massa’s dogs would lose their scent.
A Colombian Brother, Andres, who happened to be socialista revolucionario (supporter of the FARC, Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), followed me by telling this story: “When I first got here I was living in East Boston, and I got into an ESL program there. My teacher was named Nahima, and she described her belief system the same as you — African American spirituality. She said her teaching way was informed by this spiritual practice…” This was Andres’ contribution to the discussion on morning routines, the practice of ritual, and of spirituality.
My father’s grandmother was an enslaved African. In early childhood she raised him, and taught him Spirituals. My father brought up his children on this cultural expression. “Follow the Drinking Gourd” is a meditation which comes from the specific experience of one people, African Americans, and the purpose of this ritual was to help us gain freedom from slavery. The art form known as “Spirituals” is a nationally specific ritual form created by one nationality — African Americans. For some of us, embedded in our morning routines is the practice of this ritual form.