Dear Ones of CVUU,
In the last few weeks, I have fallen short on my commitment to avoid cultural misappropriation, specifically, in the programming of African American spirituals without properly identifying and contextualizing them. Now all cultures borrow from one another; we see this in food, ritual, stories, and songs, but not all borrowing of culture is equal. The Reverend Sofia Betancourt, African-American UU minister, professor of theology at Starr King Seminary, and recent acting co-president of our Unitarian Universalist Association, provides some guidance.
Cultural appropriation happens when a group of people use customs, folklore, or traditions from another group of people. This definition is neutral; it carries no judgment.
Cultural misappropriation happens when there is a danger of the appropriation being misrepresented or is done without a willingness to engage in the struggles or pain that may lie behind the custom.
Many of us grew up singing spirituals and may recognize them as part of the soundtrack of social justice movements of the 1960s, 70s, and beyond. And yet, that borrowing of the songs created by black enslaved people is particularly precarious. If you have ever asked yourself, how did people get through the torture, sorrow, humiliation, and endless, back-breaking, unpaid labor of slavery; one answer would certainly be faith, faith in a brighter future even if only accessible after death or in generations to come. Much of that deep faith was expressed in song. Simple tunes, easily learned and remembered (which is likely one reason they are so appealing for protests and worship services) but the theology expressed in those songs is anything but simple; it is deep and it is rooted in an experience that is unique to enslaved people of African descent. Some might say that no white people should ever sing spirituals. That is not my position, but I do believe that these songs deserve to be handled with care and at the very least should never be separated from the stories of their origin.
So look for our Music Director, Matt Griset and me to be offering words of introduction (either spoken during worship or perhaps included as liner notes in the order of service) whenever spirituals are presented in worship, and to ensure that guest musicians and worship leaders follow that same practice. I would take the same steps when offering songs or rituals from indigenous peoples. It is the right thing to do, and I trust that we can do better.
In this time of waning light, let us hold out to each other the chalice of our beings and share the flame that reminds us of the sacred spark that dwells within each of us.
Rev. Justine Sullivan
Interim Minister, CVUU