Lauded poet Nikki Giovanni takes a different route in On My Journey Now: Looking at African-American History through the Spirituals. Giovanni explores a people’s transition from Africa through slavery and into the present through song-a new approach for a writer best known for her prize-winning poetry. More importantly, On My Journey Now identifies the humanization and homogenization of the African-American experience through song.
On My Journey Now is a labor of love for Giovanni, who developed her passion for spirituals while attending three different churches as a child. Those songs-in black churches ranging from Catholic to Baptist-have been affectionately known as “Negro spirituals” for years. As they seeped into African-American culture, they have become common in the repertoire of choirs and updated by popular Gospel singers who sell CDs to a population that doesn’t understand or recognize the history of such songs within the levity of pop culture.
Giovanni talks about the journey through Africa that slaveholders made to pick up Africans and enslave them. “The slavers went to Africa to get the Africans and make them slaves. These were free people. These were people with their own cultures, their own families, their own relationships, their own ways of doing things, their own food-stuffs, their own clothes, their own everything, and they were ripped from their own homelands. Overpowered.” (P. 3)
As the slaves are being removed from their homes, the animals follow behind the packs eating the slaves left behind and killed because they cannot keep up. At the shores, slaves are rowed out to ships and the voyage away from home begins. Humans are demeaned as they are laid on top of one another, smothered in each other’s urine and excrement. Those brave enough jump into the water and are shot and killed or eaten by sharks as they swim home. Very few survive.
Giovanni tracks the ship as the beginning of the spiritual. It is where a collective moan begins from Africans who speak a different language though all share the language of oppression. Giovanni punctuates the familiar story of slavery with music, emphasizing where she believes the songs arise from our common origins and struggle.
On the auction block, naked slaves are viewed and sold to plantations. The spirituals continue on the plantation. “Sunup to sundown, picking that cotton; Sunup to sundown, work for the master; Sunup to sundown, chains and shackles; no more auction block for me.” (P. 13) Spirituals distill a message as slaves develop plans to escape. Giovanni explores the double meanings of the slave songs but also notes that overseers ignored the slave singing as long as they continued working.
This book travels the length of the developing African-American experience and encourages the reader to experience the spirituals with full texts included at the back of the book. Giovanni makes her most poignant point when she speaks of visiting slave ports and German concentration camps. Just as you can still smell the gas in the camps, she says, you can still hear the moan of the slaves.
This release by Candlewick Press ($18.99 for hardcover) is a notable inclusion in the works of an accomplished writer. Giovanni has written more than two dozen books all informed by the experiences of African-American people. She has been honored with NAACP Image Awards for three of her poetry collections and currently serves as a professor at Virginia Tech in Blackburg.
With a foreword by Dr. Arthur Jones, founder and artistic program director of the Spirituals Project, On My Journey Now is an informed read with a pleasing, lyric quality that makes a great buy and a great gift.
Angelic Jones is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.