“Don’t you fucking dare!” I mumbled to myself as I hear the question echoing in my head.
“Do you know how to play wade in the water?”
It’s my grandfathers funeral and I’m 7 in awe and bewitched by the magic of the singing around me. Through songs I could hear their morning, their grief, their hope and most deeply their love of him. I’m crying and yet feeling so supported. I join the response and spread my pain out in song, held by the shared voices of my community. ‘Steal away’, ‘swing low’, and ‘wade in the water’, as they carried his body from the church and lowered him into the grave. steal away, steal away, steal away to jesus. These songs so old were the same songs he’d hum to himself and reminded me to of the joy of strength in troubled times. Swing low, sweet chariot: Coming for to carry me home. It began to rain as they covered his coffin in dirt. I began to cry and couldn’t stop. I sang these songs to myself to lull myself to sleep for months after his death.
“Do you know how to play wade in the water?” A white woman asked ankle deep in the creek with around 50 others. The excitement is palpable as I look down into the creek.
“Hella Inappropriate!” I yelled down to her. A friend hears me ( I am unsure if he understood me, I was far, but shaking,) He looks at me. “Don’t do this!” I stare at him begging him to understand me, to help, He looks confused and shrugs.
I’m in gospel choir in high school. Although not religious, I joined for a connection to my culture and missing that deep, cultural singing. We’d decided on a show centered on an overview of black culture. We open with ‘swing low’ and and ‘wade in the water’. I’m in the second song and We’d decided to act out the history of the song. The LITERAL wading in the water acting scared, wary and unsure if we’d make it. One practice it hit too close to home. I think there was a issue with racism in the school, again and our director was giving us more and more context behind the song. She mentioned moving as though there were chains on our ankles, which did happen. It felt was though I could feel my ancestors singing through me, as If I’d taken on their pain, fear and struggle, I remember sobbing.
My step father had always been very explicit and graphic in describing the struggle of slaves to cross the Ohio river into Cincinnati. My home city. He’d describe how they would drown in the water because it was so cold. How they would fear being caught because even if they made it they could be sent back. He described drowning and hypothermia in depth. He talked about the blood and it covering the dark waters. how they’d cross in the middle of the night chased by dogs for a CHANCE at freedom.
The horror caught me up and I sang that sorrow, that warning, the ancestral grief. Trauma like that can be passed through genetics and I really believe I felt it, that day in my racist high school within half an hour of that same city and river.
He shrugged as a unsure guitarist starts the song. He doesn’t sing and the group missed the entrance. Tears are starting to burn my eyes. maybe this won’t work. Warbling he starts to sing, unsure of the notes and the words. Other instruments join in, the same instruments the creators of this song were beaten for playing, which is why it’s traditionally a cappella and I can feel the heat settling in my chest. The woman starts to sing, moving her feet in the water, the group joins in dancing and singing.
I left, wanting to vomit, suddenly feeling so disconnected and alone, I glanced around for the closest black person and had to share. To feel seen and understood. To lessen the grief in my heart, the disappointment, the disrespect, and feelings of isolation. My weekend was over. I packed my bag and without saying a word, LEFT.
You see Wade in the Water is a Negro Spiritual. It’s one of the oldest forms of specifically African American music. This music is special. It’s one of the oldest parts of our heritage once slaves started being born in America. By being born here more and more of us lost our ties to Africa. Over time the idea shifted from being captives who had a homeland, to being native to this land and being slaves. Nergo spirituals are one of the oldest things to come out of that shift.
These spirituals were often encoded with messages to escaping slaves in guise of Christianity. Not only that but they were a way to hold onto hope in the face of being considered less than human. Of being beaten and tortured and worked to death. They could take so much, but not our song, or spirit. Wade in the water is not a causal song about playing in a river. It’s a message to travel in water to throw off the smell of dogs. Additionally WADE. A difficult movement through water that can be up to your legs. Every tried to move quietly through water? It’s incredibly difficult and the best way is to lower your body farther into the water.
It’s about our race trying to escape slavery and the bondage we were in, against impossible odds. It brings images to mind of horrible acts of violence, death, dehumanization, and much more. So, those songs are often reserved for very serious, collective, cultural moments OR personal grief. It’s about the horror but also about the overcoming, the support, the love and the understanding.
When this white group sang this song, ankle deep in a river with little thought to any of this, experience in black singing, possibly some African or African descended instruments, and danced, I felt such pain I can’t even express. I’m generally not easy to offend and er on the side of education vs shame, but I’m deeply hurt. Seriously. This is my heritage y’all are messing with. No one would DARE sing a the Jews sang during the Houlichost because it started to drizzle. Why do you think it’s ok to do now? With us? Dancing in ankle deep water with no context is a MOCKERY of what my ancestors went through. It is a DISRESPECT to the dead, what we have gone through and are STILL going through. We can’t even bury those who passed during the crossing of rivers because they either were at the bottom or they were used as a message to other slaves.
You danced on their graves with this and I won’t be quiet about this. You could have sang SO many other songs. Picked any of the random songs I’ve had to learn to code switch into your culture and you picked a sacred one from mine. Do Better.
Easy rules to follow:
- Don’t sing negro spirituals outside of academic or spiritual contexts with other black people. Preferably leading.
- Don’t sing old gospel, spirituals, or work songs if you don’t understand: Harmonies, Bending notes, Lag, Call and response, Context
- Learn about these musics before trying to use them
- Don’t let your friends sing stuff with context they don’t understand
- Don’t sing nigger/negro/nigga
- Pick songs you know outside of the above genres.
- Avoid singing overtly political songs (ie to be young, gifted and Black, Tupac- Changes ECT)
- Consider learning more about this older music.
- Think before you do
- Don’t ever sing “Wade in the Water” in a creek again, unless someone is being baptized