Growing up mostly in the segregated south, on the cusp of the tense and often violent school integration years, I thought I knew for certain what bigotry and prejudice looked like. But, imagine my surprise, later in life, when I ran smack dab into my own ignorant assumptions, on hearing that my community’s beloved spiritual, “Amazing Grace,” was written by a white guy! At first, I simply assumed the revelation was simply more shenanigans, stemming from the white-power class’ continued activities, geared toward distorting black history in favor of maintaining the southern ‘status-quo,’ especially of the reactionary, foul-mouth, red-neck persuasion.
Frankly, my listening over and over and over, again, to Mahalia Jackson’s Negro Spiritual rendition of “Amazing Grace,” throughout the Civil Rights Movement years, only further solidified my own bias. Much later, after deflecting some of the stings of those testy years, after my military service, well after starting a family, probably during the early 1970s, Aretha Franklin’s soulful, tear-jerking variation of “Amazing Grace” came on the national stage. It simply made me chest-thumping proud that African-Americans just seemed to have it “going on” when singing this unique song of slavery, hardships and misery that no other culture could possibly accomplish, let alone understand. At least, so I assumed.
Then, it happened. Long after graduating from evening college, well into my career ladder’s last rung as a Sr. Investigator, past the time when my grandkids started calling me “Papa,” I saw a movie- entirely by accident– having nothing else better to do that day. It was titled “Amazing Grace” (2006). It was a British film about one of my favorite subjects, The Abolitionist Movement. William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the abolitionist and politician, who risked his life working to end slavery in Britain, was featured. Among the people that influenced him was the guy that penned the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” John Newton (1725-1807). It was his story that was most amazing thing to me. Not only was he white, he was the former slave-ship captain of the “Pegasus,” a ship that traded goods for slaves, in West Africa, for shipping to England. Later in life, he even became an Anglican Priest, in London. There, he began to influence William Wilberforce, as well as others in the large congregations attending his services.
According to Newton’s story, during a nasty storm at sea, in 1748, while sailing back to England on a merchant ship called the “Greyhound,” the ship almost sank off the coast of Donegal. Historical accounts say that, in the middle of the night, when he awoke, he began calling out to God, apologizing for his involvement in the slave trade. Later, as the ship sailed home, he began reading the Bible. Before reaching Britain, he had become “born again” and began avoiding profanity, gambling and drinking- but, not yet the ugly yoke and obscene profits of “Black Gold” from trading in human flesh. His “conversion” wasn’t completed until sometime later- while aboard yet another slaver vessel- the “Brownlow,” heading for the West Indies. Then, sick with a fever, Newton professed his belief in Christ. But, he did not abandon the slave trade until four or five years, later, after experiencing a severe stroke. Even then, he continued to invest in slaving operations, according to biographical data.
Depending on whose story you listen to, Newton first started jotting down the lyrics to “Amazing Grace,” during a frightful storm at sea, in 1748. That much I could probably understand, after my many years at sea, in stormy Mediterranean waters, as well as the treacherous North Atlantic Ocean. But, history records show the words weren’t heard publicly, until some 25 years later, during a New Year’s Day sermon. However, the tune we now associate with the song wasn’t popular until 1835, when William “Singin’ Billy” Walker (1809-1875), a white South Carolina Baptist minister, released the song in a hymn book called, “The Southern Harmony & Musical Companion,” according to archival records. The origin of the melody remains unknown. But, a more modern era, Public Broadcasting Program televison special, hosted by Bill Moyers, once speculated that Newton may have first overheard the melody from the songs black African slaves were singing, during his slave-trader business excursions.
I can admit my own bias, concerning the origins of the lyrics to “Amazing Grace.” However, considering how the melody was probably first overheard, my feelings didn’t seem that far off. Newton’s continued involvement with the ghastly application of the hideous trading of human flesh- following his so-called “conversion” to Christianity- was simply hypocritical and unacceptable, in my opinion. Surely, I can forgive atrocious human behavior, and have done so many times. Yet, on the flip-side, I intend to never forget the lessons our history teaches. As the song says, “Amazing Grace (How sweet the sound) that sav’d a wretch like me! I once was lost, but now am found, was blind, but now I see…”
You might even be humming the tune to yourself right now, probably in perfect pitch. That’s the magic of this universal melody. And, no matter who’s singing this remarkable song, it seems to transcend cultural, racial and religious boundaries, world-wide. It’s a doctrinal phenomenon; like the trade winds and trade routes of the horrific “Middle Passage” years, it has crisscrossed many oceans of pain and human suffering, like no other melody throughout the ages, in my opinion.
Records show that Newton preached until December 21, 1807. I’m not sure how he died, but archives say that he died, blind, unable to see. What an interesting footnote to such a salvational song- seemingly inspired by tormenting images, from the ghostly spirits of thousands, upon thousands, of slaves- in my humble opinion, of course.
Something to think on: Can you admit to passing on your prejudicial viewpoints to others? What does “Amazing Grace” mean to you- the lyrics or the melody? Does its history make any difference to you?
“Backstreet Djeli” w.d.s.
(Previously posted @ rizingcubenterprises)