Embracing Black History Month

St. John’s Cathedral proudly celebrates a long history of Black African-American and Caribbean identity here in Los Angeles.  It is especially fitting that we embrace Black History month as a spiritual community. Part of the way we express that identity every year in February is through our music.   

You will hear organ and choral music by Black composers, arrangers, and sources throughout the month of February.  You’ll hear a variety of Black musical styles, from historical Negro spirituals, to Gospel, to Jazz elements.  And you’ll be invited to join in the singing of hymns from our Black Episcopal tradition, of which there are several important resources.  

The most famous of these resources is the hymnal Lift Every Voice and Sing II – An African American Hymnal, and the successor to the first edition published in 1981.  Although LEVAS II is intended to be a supplemental resource beyond The Hymnal 1982, keen observers of church music may rightly note that the hymn informally known as the Black National Anthem – Lift Every Voice and Sing, appears in both the Hymnal 1982 and LEVAS II.  It is widely thought that this was due in large part to its inclusion and popularity in the original LEVAS I hymnal, which preceded The Hymnal 1982 by a year.  We’ll proudly raise our voices to sing this important hymn at the conclusion of our February 12 service celebrating the life and ministry of Absalom Jones, the African-American abolitionist and priest.  

There is so much important musical and sociological history to this hymnal, which drew from many different Black traditions, historically Black Episcopal parishes in the United States, and included musical elements of the African diaspora outside of North America.  I encourage you to read more about it here in the inspiring words of The Reverend Canon Harold T. Lewis, D.D. (1947-2021).  

As for those of us at St. John’s, music is a way by which we may open ourselves in some meaningful way to the experience of those with whom we share a common history, and those we may not.  When we sing, we release our breath, or ruach – “spirit,” “breath,” or “wind,” according to the Hebrew scriptures. Singing is a metaphysical act of heart-felt expression and vulnerability.  The act of singing, especially singing the music of other people, languages, and cultures, is an act of solidarity with the experience of those very people.  Christ calls us to a life of solidarity and compassion toward all people, and in this way we are especially called as Episcopalians to celebrate sacred Black musical expressions.  

I look forward to embracing and celebrating our Black musical identities this month, and in the years to come.  

Christopher G. Gravis, D.M.A.

Canon for Music & Cathedral Arts