The irony of the Black arts being one of the most widely reproduced, shared and appropriated forms of art in the modern era — despite centuries of exploitation, maltreatment and oppression — serves as a testament to the universality it possesses, as well as its inherent spiritual nature. Looking closely at the intersection of Black arts and spirituality can give us a better appreciation for the profound beauty of art in itself and for our shared lived experience as human beings. Author Christine Valters Paintner defines spirituality as the “search for meaning in life.” She states that meaning — or what psychologist Victor Frankl refers to as the “primary motivational force” in a person — allows us to develop a relationship to the unanswered mysteries of life, and enables us to cultivate values, direction and hope in a world of suffering and pain.
While religion, according to Encyclopedia Britannica, refers to a specific and particular set of faith and worship, spirituality refers to the quality of the human spirit or soul. Evidently, spirituality is often an integral part of religion and vice versa. As we see in the U.S., religion and spirituality play a pivotal role in Black culture, with 79% of Black Americans identifying with Christianity, 2% identifying with Islam, and 3% identifying with other non-Christian faiths. A. Wade Boykin, an African American education scholar, describes spirituality as being one of the nine interrelated dimensions of African American (and African Diasporic) culture and expressive behavior — the others being harmony, movement, verve, affect, communalism, expressive individualism, oral tradition and social time… all key aspects of art as well. It’s no wonder why artistry, which implores us to exercise our primal urge to bring something new into being or to partake in the act of creating, remains a key aspect of religions which establish faith in a Creator. Paintner states that the arts are “rooted in the existential capacity of the imagination to transcend literal reality, they present us with alternative ways of being and present insights only available through non-cognitive means.” In a society where Black people have historically had to find alternative ways to subsist, survive, and thrive in our daily lives, this notion of transcendence carries with it powerful implications.
Tricia Hersey, a Black performance artist and activist, states, “At the heart of us as human beings, I believe that it’s our divinity to create and invent. In the seat of our creativity is spiritual practice.” She recognizes that “our energy as spiritual creatures is to live, survive, connect, thrive, get to our highest self, and to remember.” Hersey’s work as an artist and community healer is rooted in that of Black liberation theology, which James Cone, author of “Black Theology and Black Power,” defines as “a rational study of the being of God in the world in light of the existential situation of an oppressed community, relating the forces of liberation to the essence of the Gospel, which is Jesus Christ.” By viewing Biblical texts as a redemptive means — one that liberates the oppressed — Hersey was able to connect her artistic creative practice as being one that fostered her inner divinity and relationship to God.
This idea of the arts as a means for restoration is explored by author Stephen K Levine in “Art Opens to the World.” He asserts that the sensory-affective experience inherent in art-making helps us reestablish our ability to respond effectively to the world around us.
To Levine, the process of making art requires us to give up control and transcend our barriers through faith. He insists that we must put ourselves in a state of “non-knowing” in order to achieve mastery.
It’s easiest to see these notions in the realm of theatrical expression. In Sharrell D. Luckett and Tia M. Shaffer’s anthology “Black Acting Methods,” Shaffer discusses how actors must develop their capacity to respond organically to stimuli, or in other words, maintain a “sense of unpredictable aliveness.” She reinforces how this idea of “non-knowing” is prevalent in improvisation, which is characterized by an acceptance of the unknown. In the chapter, Biggs also examines how specifically Black actresses are able to use improv as a means for cultivating their ability to survive in an unpredictable, fundamentally unstable world. Like Hersey states, “You have to be creative in a place that wants to see you dead.”
Black actor Freddie Hendricks developed an acting practice known as the Hendricks Method which explores several aspects, including devising, spirituality, and the hyper-ego, the latter of which Luckett and Shaffer define as the “seat of the soul” of the method itself. His work is mounted on the belief that the Spirit will lead the way, and that it is crucial for the Black actor to draw upon this spiritual power in performance.
This idea of the soul is a critical aspect of the Black musical experience as well. As African American jazz guitarist Bobby Brown once said, “Any great art is a transfer of emotion. Musically, soul is what we speak of as being transferred from the player to the listener, as in soul-to-soul.” As we saw in “Soul,” Pixar’s latest movie, singers, rappers, dancers and musicians put themselves in a state of optimal flow while performing when they allow themselves to be fully present in the moment in which their sense of time is altered. Black artists during performance reach this state of flow by establishing a connection with the internal rhythm of life, that in turn produces a profound emotional effect on the listener and observer. We can see this in gospel, soul, jazz, hip-hop, rap and a variety of other genres of Black music. Na’im Akbar, a clinical psychologist and University of Michigan alum, states that “the energy system of Black personality is rhythm.” Feeling the flow of rhythm unites us with the universe and the natural world around us.
While these examples only begin to scratch the surface, it’s clear that the connection between Black art and spirituality continues to serve as a means of connecting with that which is transcendent. It reminds us that even in a time of great instability, uncertainty and tension in which many of us are feeling trapped, disenfranchised and marginalized, we can always look within to find something deeper than ourselves that can set us free.
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