Reflection by Braxton D. Shelley

After Devotion

Braxton D. Shelley

In my teaching and scholarship on the Black gospel tradition, I routinely make reference to the philosopher Michel Foucault’s notion of “heterotopia” in order to describe the ways that many sanctuaries become profoundly perplexing spaces—physical locales in which a congregation can be located in the twenty-first century while standing at the foot of the cross, struggling to cross the Red Sea while soothing themselves with a balm in Gilead. On Wednesday November 3, the Divinity School’s Marquand Chapel became one of those spaces. As we talked and listened, sometimes sitting and sometimes standing, centuries’ worth of musical memory and time-stained scriptural tradition found new life on the campus of Yale University with the launch of the new Interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church. This new program’s aim between Yale, the ISM, and its local and national communities was evident from the roster of participants. From Houston and Memphis, from Chicago and Newark, from New York City and Waterville, Maine, musicians and panelists came to New Haven. Drawing together those who reflect and those who practice, those who teach and those who learn, this event, like the program it launches, sought to explore the boundaries between each of the aforementioned categories.

What a time! What a celebration, an event that was, in many ways, about time itself. When I first conceived of this launch event, an event that would bring together scholars and practitioners, students and faculty, the notion of devotion came rather forcefully into my mind. Devotion: before and after. Devotion: the moment before the official start of many Black Baptist church services and the force that sustains this practice from Sunday to Sunday. Devotion is synonymous with Black gospel, a tradition preoccupied with scenes and settings that somehow become present during the performance of a song or sermon. Devotion: both a period of preparation and a promise to persist. Persistence is what I heard when Joey Woolfalk played Richard Smallwood’s “I Love The Lord (He Heard My Cry)” on the guitar. As he made his guitar cry, I could see this fragment from Psalm 116 travel into Dr. Isaac Watts’ aural repertory, morphing into a treasured Black expression of hymn lining, one of the musical traditions that shaped the gospel imagination of a young Richard Smallwood. Given the mechanics of this practice, it is quite likely that it was during the ritual called devotion that Smallwood first heard this hymn. Thus, is it quite fitting that this is where Devotion began.

Even before the beginning of that Wednesday evening program, profound things were already afoot. While dozens of people gathered in Marquand on Wednesday, for the 11:30 am chapel service and for the 7:45 event, a few folks assembled on Tuesday evening, evoking a scene that gave new meaning to these words of Jesus: “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst.”  That night, as the musicians Pamela Jean Davis, Melanie Hill, Derrick Jackson, and Joey Woolfalk prepared for the main event, a few students gradually and organically made their way into that space. What was to be a kind of rehearsal became its own event: as these musicians played and these students—safely clad in their masks—sang the “songs of Zion,” something happened: the Fire fell. This emergent musical gathering became a site of worship—an experience of presence. Surely presence—the presence of musical genius, the presence of divine power, the presence of diverse community—showed up in Marquand. Even more, the event offered many of those who routinely inhabit the spaces of this University and its Divinity School an opportunity to find the indispensability of their presence affirmed in an official, deeply meaningful, and deeply personal way.

In Marquand, the clouds parted, the sky opened, and the kind of intense, liminal, and ecstatic so often elicited by the music of the Black church found a home on this campus. As students and guests used their bodies to acknowledge another world’s presence, the significance of the ISM’s new program came into view. More than the virtuosity or intellectual sophistication that the program will lift up, community itself, the kind that the Black church has long exemplified, the kind of sincere collectivity that is practiced through sound, will be our chief aim. This, too, is devotion.  

I leave this inaugural series of events more convinced than ever that, through the ISM’s Interdisciplinary Program in Music and the Black Church, we have the opportunity to build an institutional home for one of the most generative traditions of American music. In so doing, we will make new space for many of the students already on this campus and for many of those yet unborn to feel a different kind of home on this campus.