Thomas Breedlove (2020) To Sing Against Singing: Constraint and Liberation in the Spirituals of Roland Hayes, Political Theology, DOI: 10.1080/1462317X.2020.1855843
The tenor Roland Hayes came to international fame in the Harlem Renaissance, but the obscurity that followed his success reveals the catch-22 that confronted him and many of his contemporaries. Hayes’s career was plagued by the choice between, on the one hand, assimilating black music to narrations of primitivity and authenticity and, on the other, subscribing to projects of black music’s transformation under the tutelage of Western form. The first part of this article traces the tangled discourse on the meaning and significance of the spirituals from Frederick Douglass to the Harlem Renaissance. The second examines how this context shaped Hayes’s career and its reception. The third turns to James Cone to articulate a constructive theological reading of divine liberation in the spirituals. Here, the essay argues that the spirituals’ theology must be heard both within the songs’ historical complexity and as witness to a different understanding of history itself.