Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child: A Meditation on the Humanity of the Poor and Oppressed

I’ve been reading a Book on the Spirituals (Wade in the Water: the Wisdom of the Spirituals by Arthur C Jones). Now the thing about the Spirituals is that they move your spirit for they come from the depths of souls deeply moved by God, by suffering and the joys and sorrows of life. Most of them came from the years of slavery and the Jim Crow oppression that emerged after slavery. Most of them are also sung in the Pentatonic Scale (a scale using five basic notes that equate to the black keys on the piano). Both these facts gave them a mournful quality at times that led some to call them “sorrow songs.” But to be fair, the spirituals embraced every human emotion and always summoned to hope. One of the most beautiful qualities of these spirituals is that, despite the oppression that gave rise to them there is no bitterness in them, no calls for retribution, only the reminder that judgment day was coming when God would set things right.

I want to take one of the Spirituals, give a little background and ask you to allow the spiritual to do its work by raising a question that can stir the soul. The basic text of this spiritual is very straight forward

  • Sometimes I feel like a motherless child, a long way from home.
  • Sometimes I feel like I’m almost gone. A long way from home.
  • True Believers. A long way from home.

A painful history gave rise to this plaintive spiritual. On the one hand it could apply to the slave who had been torn from his motherland of Africa and was now far from home. On the other hand it also referred to the devastation of a child torn from his parents at sold away in the salve auctions. Consider this testimony from an escaped slave, Harriet Jacobs:

One of these sale days, I saw a mother and seven children on the auction block. She knew that some of them would be taken from her; but they took all. The children were sold to a slave trader, and their mother was bought by [another] man in her own town. …She begged the slave trader to tell here where he intended to take them; this he refused to do….[for] he would sell them one by one whenever he could command the highest price. I met that mother on the street and her wild haggard face lives today in my mind. She wrung her hands in anguish and exclaimed, “Gone! All Gone! Why don’t God kill me?” I had no words wherewith to comfort her. Instances of this kind are of daily, yea, of hourly occurrence. (quoted in Wade in the Water, p. 18).

The mournful and plaintive cry of this spiritual which you can hear below is not just a song, not just a tune meant to entertain or pass the time. It is a sigh from the heart, an exhaling of the soul giving expression to the deepest grief a mother or child can know. And the grief is not just over the separation, but also over the fact that it was inflicted by someone who knew no pity, who disregarded the pain they heard as of no account.

And so here is the spiritual question we are left to ponder: What has happened in the heart of a human being who could inflict such pain and take no note of it, lose no sleep, not be dissuaded? And this question is not just of an historical brutality. Throughout this world to this day there are unspeakable cruelties inflicted on others by fellow human beings. There are tortures, murders, terrorism, intentional policies of starvation, the inflicting of devastating blows on others and those loved by them, most often without pity, with little thought as to the grief or pain that is caused. What has happened in the heart of a person who would do such things? How has it become so insensitive and hardened? I realize our minds may go to war here and understand that war is a complicated issue (Is the State killing people and breaking things or is it restoring justice and protecting the innocent). I am speaking here more of the heart of the individual who does such things to another human being. What has happened to them on the inside?

Here we are confronted with the mystery of evil. But it is a true fact that the human heart can be progressively hardened so that ordinary human kindness and pity melt away. God surely warns us of this: “See to it, brothers, that none of you has a sinful, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God….[may] none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness…..As has just been said: “Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as you did in the rebellion.” (Heb 3:12-15).

And there it is, somewhere in hardening process many stop listening to the voice of God, the conscience. They ignore the message of faith and disregard the humanity of others and fail to consider them as a  brother or sister, sons and daughters of the same Father as they. They no longer identify with their suffering, are no longer moved by it, they have become hardened. Of them Jesus lamented: For this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes. Otherwise they might see with their eyes, hear with their ears, understand with their hearts and turn, and I would heal them (Matt 13:14-16)

Here too former slave Harriet Jacob also spoke of the effects of slavery on the oppressors:

I can testify, from my own experience and observation, that slavery is a cures to the whites as well as to the blacks. It makes the white fathers cruel and sensual, the sons violent and licentious, it contaminates the daughters and makes the wives wretched….Yet few slave holders seem to be aware of the widespread moral ruin occasioned by this wicked system. Their talk is of blighted crops, not of the blight of their children’s souls. (quoted in Wade in the Water, p 20).

So the oppressed are not the only ones stripped of humanity and a “long way from home.” The oppressor too has to a great extent sinfully lost his humanity and become hardened by insensitivity and cruelty. And he is a long way from home, the home where God’s mercy and love reign supreme. Spirituals have a way of moving the spirit and asking questions that probe the depths.

What of us? Perhaps we have not murdered, broken families or sold people into slavery. But we are capable of very inconsiderate words, hurtful actions and sinful omissions. We are capable of no longer hearing the cry of the poor, no longer being moved by the troubled and burdened who feel like a motherless child, a long way from home. What of us? Spirituals have a way of asking spiritual questions.