Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Recommended: Ian Gilmour, Slavery to Civil Rights

I'd like to recommend to you a little monograph entitled Slavery to Civil Rights, written by my friend Ian Gilmour, a Presbyterian pastor in Edinburgh who is currently serving the Scottish kirk in Colombo, Sri Lanka. Ian's small book reflects years of research into the role that spirituals and music in general have played among African-Americans and in African-American churches, to sustain hope and courage as people battle prejudice and discrimination. I find Slavery to Civil Rights — which is engagingly and clearly written — fascinating from a number of standpoints.

First, though I know Ian personally and he and his wife Donna have visited Steve and me and we them, I had not known before reading this work about the source of his lifelong interest in the spirituals. As he explains in his book, he grew up in Glasgow singing many of these songs, which were included in a hymn book used there in his teen years in a large housing scheme called Easterhouse. There, too, these songs sustained spirit and, in Ian's case, sparked a lifelong interest in understanding their function in black church life.

Second, as I told you last year, one of the big surprises for me as I read Charles Marsh's stellar biography of Dietrich Bonhöffer, Strange Glory, was the extent to which Bonhöffer was influenced by his experience of the black church in the time he spent at Union Seminary in New York in 1930. Marsh notes (pp. 116-8) that Bonhöffer found white American churches cold, jejune, and intellectually and spiritually shallow, but found the African-American church the opposite. When he returned to Germany, he brought with him a strong interest in spirituals; the circles in which he moved in Germany, circles of anti-Nazi resistance, sang the spirituals and listened to recordings of them. 

This is a story that Ian tells in his wee book, too (p. 27)….

Third, I appreciate the section of Ian's book that faces frankly Scotland's considerable involvement in the international system of slavery in the American colonies and states in the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries (pp. 24-6). As Ian notes, many Scots are inclined to pretend that Scots had very little involvement in this international system — "It wisnae us!" — when, in reality, both Scotland and England were very heavily invested in the economy of slavery, and profited royally from that system. 

As I have told Ian, I had winkled part of that story out in researching one of my own slaveholding ancestors in North Carolina who came there from Scotland in the early 1700s at a time in which the colony's Scottish-born governor Gabriel Johnston was encouraging the migration of Scottish business folks and planters to the Albemarle region of North Carolina, where they played a leading role as go-betweens between plantations there (operated by the labor enslaved people) and businesses in Scotland. Some of these folks, including my ancestor George Strachan, became wealthy as a result of their enmeshment in that system. (And Strachan was only one among many: Scottish merchants played a leading role in the business — slave-based — of Virginia, the Carolinas, and Maryland; Virginia was full of Scottish schoolmasters, who were favored by plantation owners to teach their children, and Scottish clergymen.)

The story of how slavery was everywhere, economically speaking, is told magisterially in Edward Baptist's history entitled The Half Has Never Been Told, which I discussed briefly earlier this year, noting that it does a powerful job of showing that the slave system of the American colonies/states and Caribbean was hardly confined to those places, but was an international economic system from which many people in many places profited extensively. It was, as it were, capitalism in operation for quite a period of European and American history. For a synopsis of Baptist's thinking on these points, see P.R. Lockhart's recent interview with him entitled, "How slavery became a building block of the American economy."

I encourage readers to consider Ian Gilmour's Slavery to Civil Rights, if you'd like a nice, handsomely produced overview of the role the spirituals and other forms of music have played in African-American culture and churches — based on years of research. It's available from the Edinburgh-based group FreshStart for a suggested donation of £5. On Ian's long research on this topic, see a previous posting here entitled "A Musical Evening about 'Slavery and Song': A Resource to Recommend to You."

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