Book Review: Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers, Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America
Book Reviewed by Paige Turner
The history of blacks in America remains a vast uncharted territory. While the contributions of mainstream cultures have been duly recorded, the experiences of black Americans remain locked in a treasure chest full of juicy, tasty nuggets just waiting to be discovered. Andrew Ward's new non-fiction book, Dark Midnight When I Rise: The Story of the Jubilee Singers Who Introduced the World to the Music of Black America, rectifies this situation by providing a brilliant illumination of an unheralded but nonetheless great contribution of African Americans.
At the end of the Civil War there was a desperate need to bring the former slaves into a mode of self-sufficiency. Northern based missionaries and former abolitionists took up this cause and established numerous colleges for this purpose. This noble effort was based more on good intentions than on generous financial endowments. Many of the new black colleges barely scraped by, and others did not survive. Fisk College in Nashville was on the verge of going under. Based in an old Civil War army barracks, the living and teaching conditions were abysmally poor.
A professor of music, George White recognized the talent and potential of some of Fisk's students who possessed the gift of song. He also was ahead of the curve in seeing the beauty and value in the rapidly outmoded spirituals and slave songs. White organized a group of nine student singers into a touring choir to raise funds for Fisk. Thus was born the Fisk Jubilee Singers. The funds raised from their concerts not only helped to grow Fisk, but many of the other historically black colleges and universities.
Their first tour was trouble plagued and discouraging in every way, and they barely broke even. But because they persevered the Jubilees eventually found success. The Jubilee Singers were especially renowned for the clarity of their vocal expression, and also for their inspiring and tender pianissimo (a method of singing extremely softly). In his descriptions of the Jubilee's vocal technique Ward's writing skills serve readers well, enabling them to understand and feel how truly special the Jubilees music and performances were. He comments on how the cruelty and senselessness of slavery made African American creative expression even more sublime and Godlike. "African Americans had experienced an uprooting so total and an oppression so fundamental that the songs they raised in yearning and protest struck a universal chord. "These songs came from the heart and they go to the heart," wrote Henry Proctor of Fisk. "They have the very tone of the gospel in them. They breathe the odor of spiritual sacrifice. As the bruised flower yields the sweet perfume, and the crushed grape the blood red wine, so the hearts of these people, bruised by oppression and crushed by adversity's iron heel, poured forth the sweetness and purity of the gospel in song.""
As typically has occurred with African American creative expressions, European acceptance preceded American interest, and the Jubilee's tour of Europe in their second year was a wild, undisputed artistic and commercial success.
The novelty of the Jubilees' music and race caused a major sensation, and they were invited to all of the grand homes and capitals of Europe. Many Jubilees were so favorably impressed with the acceptance and freedom they experienced they made plans to reside in Europe. While they sounded like angels, the Jubilees were very much human, and the rigors of the tours, racism and in-fighting took a great toll on the health and emotions of these young, unworldly former slaves. Ironically not one Jubilee Singer graduated from Fisk -- the institution that their artistry and industriousness built.
A large portion of Dark Midnight 's worth comes from its evocation of the whole context of the post reconstruction era. At the end of the Civil War America was neither interested in, nor prepared for the task of transforming tens of millions of former slaves into solid citizens with all of the rights of free persons. It has been forgotten that the Freedman's bureau was a joke and that 40 acres and a mule was a myth. Recent evidence supports that even Abraham Lincoln had no personal convictions about freeing slaves, and only did it for political, not moral, reasons. In many ways blacks were worse off after emancipation, as their lives were more uncertain. This crucial part of history has been forgotten. Dark Midnight rightfully brings home the point that it was northern missionaries, not the government, who took the lion's share of responsibility for preparing the former slaves for lives as freed persons. This is an important and pivotal segment of American history that has rarely been acknowledged.
A Band of Angels: A Story Inspired by the Jubilee Singers by Deborah Hopkinson and illustrated by Raul Colon, -- a book oriented toward children -- is an excellent compliment to Dark Midnight. A Band of Angels is undoubtedly one of the most charming and engaging books of the year. It is a condensed version of Dark Midnight, but with a greater focus on Ella Shepherd, the pianist, singer and driving force behind the Jubilees.
A Band of Angels realistically describes the hardships the Jubilees endured, yet also fully communicates the joy of their artistry and service. Love and reverence for the Jubilees and for Fisk is evidenced in every word and brush stroke of this delightful story. This book is so firmly and gently inspiring that young people can't help but attain a greater knowledge of black history and a greater pride in themselves as the inheritors of the Jubilees awesome legacy. Parents and children will enjoy sharing this book together. This recounting of the Jubilees fascinating story will make an excellent Christmas, Kwanzaa or birthday gift for children from ages 4 to 10.
Dark Midnight and A Band of Angels discuss a time that may be farfetched to today's readers, but it was a time when people were actively concerned about their spiritual salvation versus their financial advancement. Personal decisions were made based on whether it was part of God's plan versus whether it would enhance their financial standing. Both Dark Midnight and A Band of Angels restore unsung heroes to their rightful place in our consciousness. The Jubilee Singers and the missionary educators were people whose selflessness and sense of God built the values, conscience and spirit of this nation, a contribution far greater than that of the robber barons, the industrialists, the pioneers, and the explorers.