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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