From old church hymns to Negro spirituals, I’ll never forget being raised in the Black church. When I was about 9, I attended my first Black funeral, and hardly knew what to expect.
I thought it would be like the funerals on TV and everyone would wear black. However, my family was fast to tell me that this was definitely not the case, and it seldom is for the Black funeral.
They told me it would be long, that we weren’t required to wear black and there would be many speeches, a long sermon and most of all, lots of singing. Most of our regular church services had lots of songs and a long sermon, so I thought it may just be like one extra sad day of church, but I was wrong. People were singing so hard and passionately that it seemed like their lungs would give out. There were tears, but it wasn’t about sadness, we were celebrating a Homecoming, also known as a Homegoing, not a funeral. This was gospel and everything was mixed and blended with soul.
During slavery, Black people weren’t allowed to have formal ceremonies or rituals to mourn the dead, as slave masters viewed their gatherings as a sign that they were conspiring against them.
Yet, Black people sang spirituals which not only carried secret messages to help one another escape and find freedom, but also carried the souls of the ancestors that white society thought they had erased. While there may be lost paper trail histories, blood memory has always traced back to the soulful music of the Black church.
When African people were taken to America and enslaved, they believed that death meant their soul would return to their homelands in Africa. For them, death was freedom from a life of suffering and a pathway home to be with their ancestors. Thus, the Black community adopted our own form of Homecoming.
Homecoming transformed over time, and Black Americans have created funeral traditions that are celebrations of life. In many Black Christian churches, death is about reuniting with the loved ones, ancestors, God and Christ. It is viewed as a victory, but also a time to mourn if needed.
Most of the songs during Black funerals are old and traditional Black Christian hymns, contemporary music is seldom used. These older songs bring families back to their roots, in a way that is unique to awakening the nostalgia of home and Africa.
Songs are usually led by the choir members and the choir director which are either dressed in their choir robes or in formal attire, which varies from church to church. All attendees that can, are expected to stand and sing for each song, with singing lasting up to six hours in some cases.
The common gospel songs that are sung include, When We All Get to Heaven, Pass Me Not O Gentle Savior, I’ll Fly Away, Leaning on the Everlasting Arms, On Christ The Solid Rock, Amazing Grace and more.
Many people don’t realize it, but Black people don’t just sing, they move to the music during funerals; whether it’s a grandmother swaying to the music and clapping her hands or a younger person praise dancing, which is a worship dance that was inspired from the African tradition.
The death rituals in Africa are much like the Black American ones, and vice versa. There is singing and dancing to celebrate the life of whoever was lost. There is a sense of pride, sadness, unity and bittersweet joy as the lyrics heal the community and remind them of how far they’ve come.
Black American funeral traditions were born out of the ashes of African traditions that were seemingly eliminated during the diaspora. However, both Black American and African cultures have not only survived, they have flourished against all odds.
Both incorporate song and dance to celebrate a Homecoming that is centered around the family and how each person is interconnected. A popular African proverb that I, among many other Black American and African people, learned as a child was that, “It takes a village to raise a child,” and much like the funeral gatherings, it also takes a village to bring God’s children home.
Some of the popular African songs have echoed generations of various villages throughout many regions of the continent.
For instance, the Akan tribe of Ghana is known for Nnwonkoro songs. The book, Female Song Tradition and the Akon of Ghana by Kwasi Ampene, explains, “Nnwonkoro is a genre of women’s song found among the Akan-speaking peoples of Ghana. It has become a hybrid musical form, incorporating songs and dance movements based on traditional practices alongside others reflecting Christian influence.”
The combination of both traditional African themes with Christain influences reflects the impacts of colonization and apartheid that shaped how funerals would develop and transform over time for all African peoples and their descendenants around the world.
However, there are distinctions that allow each particular culture and tribe to maintain something inherently unique about their customs. For instance, West Africa is famous for its hour-glass shaped drum called a “talking drum.” The pitch and tone of the instrument resemble that of human speech very well.
With two drum heads, the instrumentalist can change pitches at either side for a distinct sound.The sounds of the drums are like human humming, hence the name “talking drums.”
While these aren’t used as often in Black American funerals, in West Africa, there would simply be no funeral without them. The Yoruba people of Nigeria, Ghana, Togo and Benin call these drums “Dundun drums,” and upon being played, these drummers are always accompanied by singers.
While every day is an opportunity for song and music, during funerals, their music takes on new life. With a huge multiplicity of religious influences ranging from worshipping the deity Olodumare, to Christanity and Islam after colonization, the beliefs have remained expansive, and as a result, so has their music.With liveliness, color and soul, there is nothing like a Yoruba burial song.
While the music of Black American funerals and African funerals are alike in some ways and different in others, the truth remains, that no matter the brutality of life, in death the spirits within Black people will always live on.
As diasporic cultures remind us, for those born to the homeland of Africa, as well as those that were stolen away from it, Africa is all of ours to celebrate, to mourn and to fill with the soulful musical notes of the ancestors.
As a Black woman that was raised in the Black church, I can attest to the power of Black song, even though I’m not the most religious person, but I have the utmost faith in the powerful music of the Black spirit. Until the day that I die, I will always be singing the spirituals that my grandma taught me.
Danielle Broadway is an English Literature MA student at California State University, Long Beach. She has been published in Black Girl Nerds, LA Weekly, Cosmopolitan, Blavity and more, and is a writer and editor for CSULB’s Dig Magazine and an assistant editor at Angels Flight • literary west. She’s an activist and educator that is inspired by her family to make social change both in the classroom and beyond. Follow Danielle on Twitter, and Instagram.