Refugee Train crossing the Rappahannock River at the Second Battle of Bull Run, Virginia from the Eastern Theatre, 1862. Library of Congress Archives. Click to enarge.
I liked the music—it was a big jukebox hit for Ramsey Lewis–and loved what Alvin Ailey did with it in his famous dance choreography, but I always secretly thought that the advice offered by the spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” was not very smart. Why else would you want to jump into waters that God stirred up—described in the Bible as troubled? It didn’t seem to make good sense. It took me 50 years of darkness in the wilderness of my own self-made blindness before I found out what the slaves who sang the song knew.
People think the song is about Moses and Exodus, but the troubled waters the spiritual refers to are in a New Testament verse. The conventional wisdom of history contends the song sent a signal to runaway slaves: Use the river so the hounds can’t trace you. Tonight is the moment for flight; move swiftly; the reaction will be fierce.
But my first memories of the any passage associated with black history were of dancing bodies telling a story, moving like the currents of the Atlantic’s Middle Passage, pulling against the tide, unable to reach back, torn from home, cast over in death, as ethereal as spirits—in Alvin’s Ailey’s wordless dramatic choreography.
As does Ailey’s dance, the noted Iranian poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, from another culture reappraises the tradition of space,movement, and freedom:
My whole being is a dark chant
which will carry you
to the dawn of eternal growths and blossoming
. . .
my gaze destroys itself in the pupil of your eyes
She says in another poem:
No one will introduce me to the sunlight
It is common to believe the traditional space of the slave was roiled with fear and flight. But the slave really exercised control over how his or her reality was defined.The Africans who made it through the troubled waters of the Middle Passage and who then found more trouble in their new home didn’t pass up the chance to keep their mental skills sharp and learn about a new god. They weren’t so much searching for answers as they were looking for help, protection, and comfort. Especially with millions of friends and kin strung across the Atlantic floor in a garland of dry bones.
In the greatest religious conversion ever witnessed—certainly, the most startling and unusual–Africans appropriated the god of the slaveholder and planter. They found Jesus not only saved, he delivered. He was at their service. Before crossing any channel of freedom, he lead a passage within to a humanity that itself crossed over bondage. In Charleston, a well known, colonial Methodist minister thought to be on his death bed received a visit by an African in his congregation, who spend sometime praying for him. After his prayer, (of which the ailing minister is reported to have said, “I feel better,”), and to the surprise of many, the ailing minister was out of bed by the third day.
Not taught to read or write, these Africans learned the word of God by hearing. They often memorized scripture and discerned its meaning upon first reading. But in their own traditional style, they added flesh to the word, made it into song, always strengthening the influence of divine power on the living because god was personal and to know his power you had to relate to him. From the old days, in the myths and folktales that observed the ways of people and animals, the story telling in song, of the poetry of natural symbols, was right up their alley. The idea of a god who entered the world and stirred things up, the power of a god to conquer death, change form, and make round trips between heaven and earth while still being divine, and then leaving behind a little of that spirit for everybody, who was also a god whose light and mercy and love were present in the midst of trouble, was one to whom they could relate.
On close listening, this was a god who not only saved and protected, who made the wish for the immortal eternal, but one who returned faith and courage, provided strength for the journey, and made his own kind of trouble.
But I didn’t know that back then. Nobody told me about back then. Sunday after Sunday, nobody talked about why anybody with good sense would wade into troubled waters. I thought maybe it was a temptation or a dare. Not me!
All I knew back then was the Ramsey’s rhythm of the troubled waters and the haunting elegance of Ailey’s ballet. The dance was a thing of beauty in the midst of sorrow and hope. But I knew my own doubts about following the path of trouble. You can’t imagine the joy of my surprise. When I found out what following that trouble meant.
One day, there it was in John, chapter 5, the whole story laid out at the end of a web search.
It’s probably best if I quote it:
“Some time later, Jesus went to Jerusalem for one of the Jewish festivals. In Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate, there is a pool called Bethesda, surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, those paralyzed. [For an angel of the Lord went down at certain seasons into the pool and troubled the water; whoever, after the troubling of the water, was the first to step in the water was made whole from disease or affliction.]
One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?” “Sir,” the invalid replied, [I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”]
Jesus Healing at the Bethesda Pool. Willaim Hogarth engraving.
Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, and so the Jewish leaders said to the man who had been healed, “It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat.” But he replied, “The man who made me well said to me, ‘Pick up your mat and walk.’ ” So they asked him, “Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?”
The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there. Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, “See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you.” The man went away and told the Jewish leaders that it was Jesus who had made him well.
So, because Jesus was doing these things on the Sabbath, the Jewish leaders began to persecute him. In his defense Jesus said to them, “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” For this reason they tried all the more to kill him; not only was he breaking the Sabbath, but he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God.
Just think, the man was cured and Jesus got in trouble for helping him out! What a god! People were mad at him for working a miracle, for using his supernatural skills. In restoring the man’s health with only a spoken word, he broke the observed rites and all kinds of religious laws because his saving grace didn’t rest on the day proclaimed by religious authorities.
The Africans immediately took a liking to what they heard about Jesus, a god-in-the-flesh, not far removed from their own ideas about how god intervenes in the world and assists and is known within the affairs of the community. They admired that he was a rebel; if there was something to do, he did it. If it were right, he didn’t worry about pleasing anybody. They liked how he was soft spoken and took time to for everyone, no matter their condition.
The Africans knew that in this world god might not cure everyone, but he poured out simple gifts. He touched enough souls and changed enough lives for all to have faith in him as a sense of hope, and to remember his promise of big things to come. The slaves knew freedom and justice and wisdom were often tangled up with people trying to hold freedom back.
When the states of the South decided to secede from the Union, they were definitely trying to hold freedom back. Here’s what a few had to say in their official Ordinances of Secession, the document written and voted on to express their grievances:
the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction.
Texas:She was received as a commonwealth holding, maintaining and protecting the institution known as African slavery – the servitude of the African to the white race within her limits – a relation that had existed from the first settlement of her wilderness by the white race, and which her people intended should exist in all future time. . a provision founded in justice and wisdom, . .
. . a blow at slavery is a blow at commerce and civilization. . . It advocates African equality, socially and politically, and promotes insurrection and incendiarism in our midst.
As some wanted to hold freedom back, many wanted to eliminate Jesus for works and faith which were misunderstood, and many historians and scholars misunderstood the message of those who flew from bondage. South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi were deep South states far from freedom’s borders. Even singing “Wade In The Water,”it would have taken weeks and weeks of walking to find freedom and across the river. In the deep South states, runaways generally remained local. They moved freely and stayed close to home. The Charleston newspapers are filled with ads of runaway sightings.
The ads suggest places and locations where the runaways might be captured and returned for reward money. These places are most often neighboring plantations where the enslaved had family, the docks where work could be found, or hardscrabble neighborhoods where status didn’t matter, and nobody snitched. Here in Charleston, runaways gathered in communities along the edge of the plantations, living deep in the woods. Near the city, they gathered in the Neck, a narrow coastal thicket of forest, marsh, and swamp, just north of the city.
Slaves manned the boats at Charleston’s ferry crossings: Mathias Ferry, Bees Ferry, Givhans Ferry, Cainhoy. They worked in the vast rice fields planted near the swamp and rivers. Many were hunters themselves and were trusted to obtain wild game. Why would they need to be remained of how to escape the hounds? The historians missed the code. The code wasn’t about escape.
It was about Christ.
The song is most associated with the runaways led by the legendary Harriet Tubman, known as “Moses” (who once had a $40,000 price tag on her head for “slave stealing”). She sung the song to alert those she guided to freedom, but she was a deeply religious woman, and never denied the song’s spiritual witness.
Once she said, “Twan’t me, ’twas de Lord! Jes’ so long as he wanted to use me, he would take keer of me, an’ when he didn’t want me no longer, I was ready to go; I always tole him, I’m gwine to hole stiddy [hold steady, wr/] on to you, an’ you’ve got to see me trou.”
But by the time Harriet Tubman made it to SC in 1862, the war was on and she traveled here by steam ship in the midst of the Civil War. She was a nurse healing dysentery with herbal cures, a spy and scout, and commanded troops clearing the mines on the river for the ships passage. Make no mistake, the song is about freedom, but it’s more about inner freedom than it is legal or physical freedom. Its journey is about breaking through to find that immutable place in you.
The slaves didn’t just dream of returning to Africa on the chariots “coming for to carry me home.” “Way up in the sky,” they saw the chariots in a beatific vision just like Ezekiel did. The spiritual, “Plenty Good Room,” wasn’t just a parody of ironies about the planter’s house, his material possessions, or his faith. The song described the abundance of god’s gifts for all. It celebrates the greatness of his unmerited love, and the joy open for eternity. It sung about a home with a place already prepared. Grander than what man built–because it would last for all eternity.
The fourth verse of John 5 that describes how the angel stirs the waters of the pool is left out of several excellent bible manuscripts and a debate rages about whether it was actually in the original manuscript written by John. The word, “troubled” or “stirred,” in the original Greek refers to “an uncertain affinity.” In other words, the angel brings forth a power whose source was unknown by observation or direct sensory means.
But its results were consistent and clear. This affinity had the ability to heal afflictions and was transferred to the waters; its blessing received by the first one in. Christ transfers this blessing, by word and deed, to all who believe in faith. But like the healing at the Bethesda pool, often the benefits of god’s grace only come in certain seasons.
The spiritual, “Wade in the Water,” tells how to practice faith; and, like algebra, it re-orders the events. In the bible story, the water is troubled first. In the spiritual, those who will be blessed are urged to step into the waters first, before the angel of god comes. The song stresses meeting hardships with courage and “stiddy” faith; gather now and get ready, the healing is promised. Gather now, so that all will be among the first received and delivered by the gifts of grace that spring forth in dark times.
While only a few of those enslaved in the deep South escaped, nearly all converted. But those who write history never read an African folktale or attended a country sermon or prayer meeting in a praise house. They will argue the conversion was forced. I think the slaves made an independent assessment, since their praise of him is independent and applies to their conditions, and is tied to the Bible by their own view.
Taken on their own terms, their songs celebrated the powers and witness and instructions of the god they embraced. In a shorthand, the song admonished the community not to be like the paralyzed man, who seemed unable to seize opportunity and who betrayed to the authorities the one who saved him!
Who that dressed in blue?
It must be the ones who made it through
And in the description of baptism, a hinted memory of those lost in the middle passage:
Chilled body but not my soul
So in the legacy of “Wade in the Water,” we know, dramatic change can come to our lives. John, the youngest of the disciples, in just 22 days of his life, records the dramatic witness of Christ. The miracle John describes in Jerusalem at the Bethesda pool waters is not recorded in any of the other three gospels.
So “Wade in the Water” is more than instructions for running away, which only a small number of border state slaves were able to do. It is a song text of a dramatic story of god’s ability to restore and redeem. The African songs known as the spirituals are witness and memory. They are a text for the inner heart. They express its highest calling.
So in the legacy of “Wade in the Water,” there are coded instructions. Here’s some of what we know:
Good is often spoken of as evil.
Legal ordinances are powerless before God.
We profit by faith.
The faithful must be steadfast and stay with courage.
God does not rest in the midst of misery.
There is no power in us without the grace of God.
The misery of our daily condition tells us to believe!
Change will bring new troubles.
Despite evil, temptation, desire, and fear, God’s gifts restore us physically, socially and spiritually.