Johari Osaze Jabir, Professor of Religious Studies, University of California, Santa Barbara
"One More Valiant Soldier Here: Music and Masculinity in the Black Religious Imagination"
On May 4, the ISS welcomed Johari Osaze Jabir, a Ph.D. student in religious studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He presented his paper, “One More Valiant Soldier Here: Music and Masculinity in the Black Religious Imaginary,” which intertwines US Civil War historical records, contemporary fiction, and critical theory.
Jabir frames his argument with an episode from Toni Morrison’s Beloved in which Baby Suggs, a weathered matriarchal character whose charismatic wisdom marshaled a religious community, prepares to preach in a woodland clearing by orchestrating a “ring shout.” A clip from the 1998 film helped those in attendance to envision the “ring shout,” a dynamic ritual creative of sacred space. Baby Suggs consecutively summons sections of her congregation to join the counter-clockwise processional. Her verbal calls evoke biblical creation in which word musters materiality; she beckons, “let the grown men come.” In so doing, she arrogates to herself a power that was claimed by former slave owners: to name them as men (and, by implication, to strip them of that designation). The “grown men,” on the other hand, contribute to the construction of their masculinity by responding to Baby Suggs’ call to performance. Jabir referenced the Yoruba term ashe, meaning “call,” which is multivalent in the sense that it carries connotations of transformation in addition to referencing spoken gestures.
The vocalizations and rhythms of the ring shout produce tonalities and melodies from which, Jabir argues, early nineteenth century black musical expressions developed. In particular, black male ensembles such as barbershop quartets, and even Motown groups much later, can trace their roots to this circular musical performance. Jabir finds a parallel to Morrison’s fictional ring shout in the historical case of the South Carolina Volunteers, the first black regiment in the Union army during the US Civil War. Proto-ethnographic documents written by the regiment’s colonel describe campfire practices—“strange concerts half powwow half prayer meeting”—that included drumming, chanting, clapping, and dancing in circular formation (T.W. Higginson, diary entry, 3 December 1862). These performances relied upon religious imagery (Jesus and heaven, specifically), religious songs, and spirituals. In contrast to the episode in Baby Suggs’ clearing, these enlisted men constructed black manhood by virtue of their own authority, requiring only self-naming to identify them as masculine subjects.
Borrowing a term from Victor Turner, Jabir names the ring shout of the South Carolina Volunteers “performative reflexivity,” which can refer to the transvaluation of social structures and symbols as a way of interrogating identity. The Volunteers torque the constraints of military conscription into circumstances germane to the dramatic construction of black adult male selfhood. Drumming and marching in a militaristic context collude with discipline—the establishment, domestication, and routinization of masculine identity; yet the Volunteers harnessed that disciplining power into a catalyst for collective transformation. Historian Sterling Stuckey has argued that the ring shout has had a significant role in African American social formation; it is a way of realizing “oneness.” Ring shout performance acted as a vehicle for transcending the line that separated slave from man.
The colonel of the Volunteers transcribed twenty-five spirituals performed by the regiment; many of these have remained popular. Others have not retained cultural currency. The diminished status of a spiritual referred to as “One More Valiant Soldier Here” may be attributed to its unabashed connection of military, religious, and masculine imagery. Frederick Douglass recognized these connections and encouraged black men to enlist in the Civil War precisely because armed service confers a decidedly masculine, agencied status that would, in his view, challenge racial (and racist) social structuring. Jabir concluded his presentation with a quotation from Frantz Fanon, who wrote of the protection and possibilities that the ring shout affords: “The circle of the dance…may be deciphered as in an open book the huge effort of a community to exorcise itself, to liberate itself, to explain itself. There are no limits—inside the circle.”
Questions for Discussion:
The ring shout represents a type of homosocial ritual that constructs gender and establishes rules of engagement between same-sex bodies. More broadly, are signifying and transvaluation primarily methods of demarcating acceptable ways of relating?
How do the performance and construction of African American femininity draw upon the religious?
Since the ISS has particular interest in fathoming the profound repercussions of the written word upon subaltern social formation, we might consider the significance of Douglass’ written call to conscription. What does it mean for a non-dominant male with elite capabilities to encourage, in writing, other non-dominant males to construct status and identity via collective bodily performance?
Armed service signifies national belonging/citizenship. How does such service, as a mode of social formation and a “centering” practice, interact with the construction of gender and race? Can it result in a troubling of gender and racial categories—or their stabilization?
What is the relationship of this kind national belonging represented in militaristic terms to more institutional religious formations? How does the naming of masculinity in a military context mixed with religious ritual translate into the more traditionally religious setting of “church,” “synagogue,” “mosque,” “assembly,” etc.?