On September 18, 1875, an author with the surname “Curtis” wrote an article for a newspaper called “The Weekly Louisianian”, which was based in New Orleans, Louisiana. This article, titled “Sylvan Worship”, documents the author’s experience at an African American church where worshippers sang spirituals as a religious experience. The lens through which Curtis analyzes their experience in witnessing spirituals as a religious experience is especially interesting considering “The Weekly Louisianian” describes itself on the front page as “Journal of the Republican Party of Louisiana”, going so far as to further demonstrate their political affiliation through the motto, “Republican at all times, and under all circumstances.” Curtis’ article therefore gives an excellent example of how Southern, Republican white people in the nineteenth century perceived the spiritual practices of African Americans and the associated church music.
All of this being said, it is important to recognize that the meaning of “Republican” in 1875 is very different than how it is interpreted today:
“After the United States triumphed over the Confederate States at the end of the Civil War, and under President Abraham Lincoln, Republicans passed laws that granted protections for Black Americans and advanced social justice (for example the Civil Rights Act of 1866 though this failed to end slavery). Again Democrats largely opposed these apparent expansions of federal power,” (Wolchover).
Regardless of political party, the “othering” attitudes in Curtis’ writing are apparent and abhorrent. For example, Curtis states in his article, “Negro character has always been one of the most curious studies among human phenomena, and, although its peculiarities have been the theme of books and lectures for a hundred years, there is always something new and novel cropping out in association with the race.” By saying this, Curtis conveys the attitude that Black people are specimens and “phenomena” that need to be scientifically studied to understand, as if they are not humans with distinct voices, identities, and experiences. Curtis drives this point home by quoting the Black musicians and worshippers he observed in African American Vernacular English (AAVE), which seems to have been used inappropriately with an overtone of condescension in order to undermine what the African American worshippers are actually saying and draw attention to linguistic differences. He even writes the lyrics of the hymn “Come, We That Love the Lord” in AAVE despite the fact that it was written by Isaac Watts, a white Anglican. Curtis does not seem to be attempting to purposely “other” the African American worshippers, in fact he praises the passion and intensity of the service. Curtis’ intrinsic racial bias comes through in vocabulary such as “primitive”, “barbaric”, and “pathetic” to describe the worship spirituals. Another interesting vocabulary choice is in the article title itself: “sylvan”. According to Oxford English Dictionary, “sylvan” is defined as “A person dwelling in a wood, or in a woodland region; a forester; a rustic”. Curtis’ use of this word almost implies that African Americans only live in rural country areas and are behind on cosmopolitan technologies and behaviors.
It is clear through the entire article that Curtis likely thought of himself as though he were scientifically observing a culture that was less developed than his own (which we know is problematic and inaccurate). This viewpoint parallels that of Frances Densmore’s while she documented Native American musical traditions around the United States in the early twentieth century. It is interesting to note that this article was released during Densmore’s lifetime (she lived from 1867-1957), so it can be inferred that racial othering and white supremacy in analyzing the music of other cultures was rampant in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
Curtis. “Sylvan Worship.” African American Newspapers, Reader, 18 Sept. 1875, https://infoweb.newsbank.com/apps/readex/doc?p=EANAAA&sort=YMD_date%3AA&fld-base-0=alltext&val-base-0=spirituals&val-database-0=&fld-database-0=database&fld-nav-0=YMD_date&val-nav-0=&docref=image%2Fv2%3A12B767D21CB17968%40EANAAA-12BEC31400554038%402406150-12BC002A0EA02018%400-12D621523A4D1068%40%2522Sylvan%2BWorship.%2522&firsthit=yes.
The Weekly Louisianian, 18 Sept. 1875.
Wolchover, Natalie, and Callum McKelvie. “When and Why Did Democrats and Republicans Switch Platforms?” LiveScience, Purch, 14 Apr. 2022, https://www.livescience.com/34241-democratic-republican-parties-switch-platforms.html.