American Descendants of Slavery Empowered Through the Arts, Social Media #ADOS, and Activist Preaching

American Descendants of Slavery Empowered Through the Arts, Social Media #ADOS, and Activist Preaching
Christine Passarella By

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The Arts, social media and activist preaching offer platforms for the American descendants of slavery in our times. Where some traditional societal structures have failed African Americans, these ever-evolving creative areas of empowerment and enlightenment can have a tremendous impact.

This past December I arrived at New York City Center while waiting for the curtain to rise on the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater—I focused on a particular performance entitled "Members Don't Get Weary." The program included this quote from Ralph Ellison, "The blues is an impulse to keep the painful details and episodes of a brutal experience alive in one's aching consciousness, to finger its jagged grain, and to transcend it, not by the consolation of philosophy but by squeezing from it a near-tragic, near-comic lyricism." It was a precursor, as I would soon be in awe and stirred by the performance that was about to unfold. I anticipated a memorable experience knowing that hearing John Coltrane's music would soon surround every human being sitting in the sold-out auditorium. John Coltrane's artistic songs, "Dear Lord" and "Ole`" were selected from his treasure chest of music by choreographer Jamar Roberts for the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater. He interpreted the songs paying tribute to black Americans who had been enslaved. Ailey's modern dance art form is at the highest level, offering through its artistic interpretation education, community outreach, cultural enlightenment, and truth-telling.

The show opened with an illuminating introduction to the world of Alvin Ailey, then the dancers moved to speak through the prophetic sounds of master musician John Coltrane. Jamar Roberts created the piece as a response to the current social landscape hoping the audience could perhaps transcend their own personal blues in some way. The stellar performance coupled with Coltrane's sound had the possibility of reaching a universal consciousness. Trane's "Dear Lord" covered the audience with its audacious tender power. I could feel the suffocation of oppression in the dancers' movements and the exhale with a release, then the taking in of oxygen that lives in hope as the dancers told a story of human beings reaching to one another and to heaven.

American history included laws that prohibited slaves from learning how to read, and out of that inhumane crippling rose the phoenix of an African American tradition rooted in music for communication. The black music tradition continues and became part of the fabric which educates and uplifts all of America. John Coltrane's music is an example of music at its highest level of communication with the entire world. John once said, "Sometimes I wish I could walk up to my music for the first time as if I had never heard it before. Being so inescapably a part of it, I'll never know what the listener gets, what the listener feels, and that's too bad." If he could have witnessed the impact his music had on all in attendance, and the transcendence in the dancers' spirits, it is certain he would have felt rewarded.

The dance movements to "Dear Lord" brought the spirits of the great human beings who were trapped in a trajectory of man's inhumanity to man by white supremacy. The dancers moved into "Ole,`" bringing onto the stage the energy of the struggle, and the power in the will to survive every evil block that American history put in the way of slaves and descendants of slaves. With their hands to God, the dancers showed the strength of African Americans whose lineage is connected to descendants of slaves. The dancers brought the audience to the plantations in the scorching heat, shielded with straw hats, and a divine power.

I had a vision of John playing his saxophone filling the stage all the way to the ceiling, floating out of his instrument were the dancers as if they were his prophetic muses. The young dancers and all young people need to know Trane's music offers a guiding light. The beauty is in seeing the dancers taking the baton, and in each step, they gave their love to John Coltrane understanding his prayers for a better world.

American Descendant of Slavery

John Coltrane is an American descendant of slavery on both his maternal and paternal sides. He understood deep in his soul the love and courage it would take to survive this journey, and transcend. He is a descendant of West Africans. His maternal grandparents were enslaved in North Carolina until they were both five years old. They were freed when slavery became illegal after the Civil War. In his boyhood years, he lived with his parents, and his maternal grandparents, the Blairs in High Point, North Carolina. His grandfather Reverend W.W. Blair purchased farmland and took care of his immediate family and aging parents. He became a very important political leader and teacher. But soon white supremacy would have a devastating impact on John's maternal family again. In 1900, North Carolina ratified a state constitutional amendment which disenfranchised most African Americans. The result was that W.W. Blair was not allowed to continue his political leadership or resume a professional teaching career. He, however, remained a great leader and brought his strength and brilliance into the A.M.E. Zion church where he continued to be a man held in high regard by the communities he served and loved.

John Coltrane's paternal great-grandparents, Andrew and Mary Ann were also enslaved in North Carolina, and freed after the Civil War, but continued to work as tenant farmers for their former owner. In 1881 two years after Andrew's death, Mary Ann bought a small farm and lived her remaining years there with her son William and daughter-in-law Helen. William and Helen were the parents of John Robert Coltrane. He and his wife Alice Gertrude Blair would bring into the world a son in 1926. That child grew up into the master saxophonist. I am grateful to Coltrane biographers David Tegnell and Dr. C.O. Simpkins for personally sharing with me their primary research on John Coltrane and his ancestors. It seems clear that every harmonious note of love came from John's heart, and the dissonance came from wrestling with the struggles and injustice.


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