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December 5th, 2008
08:47 PM ET

Negro spirituals for the hip-hop generation

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/12/05/obama.spirituals.jpg]Stephanie Simon
The Wall Street Journal

Eighth-grader Tre Hunter scrunched down in his chair and explained why he didn't expect much from the coming concert of old Negro spirituals.

He prefers hip-hop, he said with a grin. "It's more inappropriate. But it has the beat."

Then the lights dimmed and, as the first choral notes floated up, a slide show began: images from a slave ship and a slave auction; drawings of children bending to pick cotton, bending to be whipped. Tre, 14 years old, straightened up.

The concert was put on by The Spirituals Project, a nonprofit that aims to nurture African-American students by connecting them to their past.

With the nation's first black president preparing to move into the White House, many young African-Americans are looking ahead. The Spirituals Project, like other leadership programs, offers words of caution: Slow down. Look back.

As a generation of young black leaders, who didn't necessarily participate in the civil-rights struggles, emerge on the political stage, older mentors hesitate to sound like they are dwelling on the brutal legacy of centuries past. Yet they say young African-Americans can't appreciate the significance of Barack Obama's election or prepare to reach for bigger milestones without a thorough grounding in their history.

Students today must "study the lessons learned from the past and know the pain that comes with sacrifice," said Arlivia Gamble, chairman of the National African-American Women's Leadership Institute in Dallas. "I learn more about my own story from hearing the stories of others, and these songs are the stories of peoples' lives," Ms. Gamble said.

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Filed under: 360° Radar • Race in America • Stephanie Simon
soundoff (9 Responses)
  1. KSuzanne

    What a great opportunity for the youth of our African-American community to hear the songs that got our people through the horror of slavery! I hope many parents take the time to give this gift to their children. Spirituals are not only a window into our past as African-Americans, but spirituals in the African-American community link the souls of our ancestors to the hearts of the younger generations!

    KSuzanne from San Leandro, CA

    December 8, 2008 at 8:22 am |
  2. Giovanna

    It's a disconnect from the past. And I don't necessarily think that its a bad thing.
    Sometimes prejudice and segregation can only disappear when there is a generation shift. I'm Caribbean and I'm mixed. I live in a country that experienced slavery, but black people made up 80% of the population at the time. There are now literally no more pure black people here. Everyone's mixed. I personally have African, Amerindian, Indian, Scottish and Chinese ancestry in me (and that didn't happen recently). This is not unique. Quite frankly, neither I nor my parents or relatives or next-door neighbors or strangers on the street could care less what race the person I'm going to marry is going to be. No-one cares. When tourists ask us what race we are, we say our country.
    What's more powerful in the fight against racism than that?

    December 8, 2008 at 3:13 am |
  3. KIm

    Down home spiritual rocking ! This show wil put a little go in your soul to roll ! Good job and the young Americans all together and that's beautiful ! We need more of those grass roots moving that unite with our young people. Get the old Motown in there !

    December 6, 2008 at 6:34 pm |
  4. Steffany Martinez, Bronx, NY

    First I would like to congratulate you for your excellent job, you're one of the sharpest, and honest journalist of this time.
    I'm also taking this opportunity to ask you to put attention in your reports the minorities, not only inside the states but in our countries of origin; the reality is that if the most powerful nation in the world is going to rough economic times, imagine the impact in "third world" or "underdeveloped" nations like my country the Dominican Republic, a country that supports itself out of tourism, agriculture and tobacco, and sharing one island with the poorest country in this side of the world.
    Please consider this opportunity to explore the other side of this economic tragedy affecting the modern world, not only north americans but the whole continent AMERICA.
    Best wishes this season to you, your family and your 360* team.

    Sincerely,
    Steffany Martinez

    December 6, 2008 at 2:21 pm |
  5. Pearl Pfiester

    I just hope our generation today doesn't dwell on the past and give themselves reasons to continue the unnecessary racism and affirmative action.

    December 6, 2008 at 3:39 am |
  6. Jannique Lancaster

    why are the writers still using the Term Negro. I don't care how long ago slavery existed or even ended. The term is truly a form of disrepect. African Americans are the only group of people who haven't been compensated for the acts against them even after slavery.

    December 5, 2008 at 11:53 pm |
  7. Larry

    Are they in the original languages?

    December 5, 2008 at 10:35 pm |
  8. Louisiana Joe

    I think its a great idea, they should go on tour and remind everyone about the struggle. I know my mom & dad would remind me frequently, but i was blessed with an older set of parents. It is OK to forgive but worthless if we forget!

    December 5, 2008 at 10:00 pm |
  9. yolonda spinks from memphis

    I would love to see this performance. Making a note to look them up and maybe I can take my neices on a trip to see it.

    December 5, 2008 at 9:08 pm |