African-American Literature: Southwest TN. – The Vernacular Tradition

In the previous post (Introduction) I asked “Is African-American Literature’s absence in high school one of the primary reasons race relations are still complex?” I am still interested in feedback on this question. Today the class moved into the section of the book titled The Vernacular Tradition. Without removing the ability of anyone reading this to comment or make their own hypothesis on the meaning of the Vernacular Tradition, I will state that this is an additional introduction to the Black Literature anthology. The Norton’s Anthology creates an interesting preface in placing this at the beginning of the text. I honestly think this section would be better served if it was split up and placed withing the context of each era that is covered in the book. (I hope you understand that…) The Vernacular Tradition begins with spirituals and moves through each phase of the African American culture (spirituals, gospel, secular music, blues, jazz, r&b, sermons and hip-hop and folktalkes).  I don’t want to delve to deeply into describing what was presented and instead I will post the few songs we read and listened to in class from the first few sections.

We listened to Steal Away To Jesus sang by Bernice Reagon; read from the Gospel section: Peace Be Still, read from the secular music section: Me and My Captain, Sinking of the Titanic, listened to Strange Fruit sung by Billie Holiday (I plan to play the Cassandra Wilson version on Thursday) and we listened to Hellhound on My Trail from the Blues section as we left class.

Important discussion questions derived from this section:

Why is analyzing vernacular important?

The beginning of African American literature as it relates to the vernacular does not change, there is always a layer within the music that requires deciphering and analysis. Can Black Literature simply be written for the sake of entertainment solely? Should the literature bear responsibility? Should writers forgo responsibility? Why does it appear that the vernacular tradition is unable to simply be just a song?

The refrain, “I ain’t got long to stay here,” in spirituals and gospel has duality what exactly does it mean, in context and out of context?

The interesting thing that I think we discovered is that there is a shift in the way songs were written in the Black community. The initial style of songs in the vernacular had an emphasis on life being endured because of the hope of a better life, “In the upper room, on the other side.” This quickly changed to songs with a more direct message that was more direct. What do I mean by direct? I will leave that for the next discussion.

Prof. B.