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  • Nothing but Love in God’s Waters: Volume 1: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement by Robert Darden
  • C. Liegh McInnis (bio)
Nothing but Love in God’s Waters: Volume 1: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement. Robert Darden. University Park, PA: Penn State UP, 2014. Pp. 224. $34.95 (cloth). ISBN: 978-0-271-05084-3.

The strength of Robert Darden’s Nothing but Love in God’s Waters is his research, which drives the text. Even without Darden’s rich prose, the work would be a formidable bibliography with its mountainous listing of primary and secondary sources, making the text’s intellectual richness the equivalent of the soils of the Mississippi and Nile Riverbeds. Thus, one undercurrent lesson becomes the importance of history, especially the notion that not teaching children history and expecting them to contribute positively to society is tantamount to separating a plant from its roots and expecting it to flower. As such, Darden’s presentation of the spiritual as an intellectual accomplishment is an act of reclaiming the humanity of African people and reminding them of their essential worth to humanity.

In chapters one and two, Darden takes his time to show the manner in which slaves calculatingly created songs of double-entendre as an intellectual strategy to encourage themselves while cloaking their plans for freedom. Moreover, if the strength/power/fuel of Nothing but Love in God’s Water is Darden’s meticulous research, the rhetorical/aesthetic brilliance is the manner in which he painstakingly shows how the slave spirituals evolve as African Americans adapt to the changing times into the well-crafted tools of protest and inspiration that drive the civil rights movement. He presents a three-part linear progression of spirituals: spirituals as they develop from African origins, the manner in which spiritual lyrics become modified for secular (socio-political purposes), and the manner in which completely new songs and genres are developed to echo spirituals.

By the late 1970s many African Americans were made to feel or had adopted the notion that singing certain types of gospel tunes that could be associated with slave spirituals and singing as a part of political engagement were activities of the past that they had finally surpassed by becoming too sophisticated for such overly emotional behavior. Yet, Darden’s research shows the intellectual merit of singing as a three-tiered act of informing, inspiring, and healing, which shows the deep understanding of the complex, multidimensional state of the human condition that allowed African people to develop an art form that could appeal simultaneously to every aspect/fiber of a person: physical and metaphysical, mental and emotional. Thus, by the 1930s and 40s well-noted, white labor activists noted understood that [End Page 192] the spiritual provided “perfect blends of tones and feelings and fears” (80) to comfort and arouse the masses. Additionally, the transformation of the spiritual into a socio-political weapon reflects the ability of African people to learn a culture, analyze a culture, and provide commentary of that culture that denounces the controllers of that culture for their empty religious rhetoric.

More than just healing and comforting themselves, spirituals quickly developed into a way for African people admonish white America for its religious and political hypocrisy. To paraphrase poet, playwright, essayist Kalamu ya Salaam from his book What Is Life?: Reclaiming the Black Blues Self, there was no Christianity, democracy, and decency in America until African people through their freedom movement forced white people adhere to and live by their formerly empty ideals. Darden shows that while Christianity was pushed/forced upon many African slaves by masters as a way to make them more docile, he also shows that the slaves were intellectual and inventive enough to see what the masters tried to hide from them and use that uncovered message as the fuel for their liberation struggle.

As an intellectual force, Darden shows how the spiritual becomes the epitome of Frederick Douglass’ notion that “power concedes nothing without demand.” As such, the spiritual becomes a socio-political demand for justice on moral grounds, forcing white Americans to investigate...


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pp. 192-195
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