Church and Society / Cultural Critique / Politics / Pop Culture / Religion / The Color Line / Theology of Preaching

Mainstream Media Gets It Wrong Again: The Black Church in American Culture

On Wednesday, October 20, CNN.com posted a news article entitled “Black preachers who ‘whoop’ — minstrel or ministers?” that amongst the black churchy folk was a subject of tweets and Facebook status updates; many went so far as to link the news story to their Facebook pages engendering comments aptly defining the “whoop” (pronounced “hoop”) as either minstrel, ministry and for some it’s both.

If you’re still lost as to what I’m talking about and you haven’t clicked the link of the story, the “whoop” is the end part of the sermon when the preacher goes from a speaking voice into a musical pitch.  To someone unfamiliar, it kind of comes off as singing, but usually most black congregants wouldn’t recognize it as such. The preacher finds a different cadence that previously before that is in sync with the musicians.  Esteemed homiletician and professor Dr. Henry Mitchell has dubbed this part of the sermon as the “celebration.”

To a large swath of the African American church populace ranging from those in urban settings to rural settings and all in between, this practice of whooping at the end of a sermon is relatively common and considered normative for the preaching moment.  However, as the title of the CNN.com article posed, the big question amongst scholarship and black preachers alike is whether or not this is minstrelsy or ministry.  Unlike the video clip, the article does decide to push the envelope further by asking is this something that only black preachers can do or is something in which white counterparts can partake.

To deal with the premier question, that truly depends on one’s background as to whether whooping is minstrelsy or ministry.  I think in mainstream media’s attempt to dissect all things in the black community in the Age of Obama combined with an American listening public that has grown attached to 10 second sound-bytes like conjoined twins, that certain topics don’t get their full breadth of how to understand them and deal with it.  Such as was this piece published on CNN.com.  While the written article did take the time to get quotes from well known homiletics professors such as Drs. Teresa Fry Brown and Henry Mitchell, get an opinion from white Pentecostal preacher Paula White well known in black evangelical and Pentecostal circles, the video was a shoddy piece of journalism.

Rev. E. Dewey Smith, pastor of Greater Traveler's Rest Baptist Church in Decatur, Georgia

I say this because it seemed as though CNN went no farther than their Atlanta backyard to find a preacher who exuded the performative aspects that are generally associated with a black preaching style–namely the pastor’s ability to whoop at the end.  While this is not an attempt to castigate Greater Traveler’s Rest Baptist Church or malign the integrity of their pastor E. Dewey Smith, Jr. for his interview, it’s just simply that that was one pastor’s understanding of this aspect of black preaching and the black church experience.

The reason why person’s see whooping as minstrelsy is because of it’s apparent reliance on emotionalism.  This idea of emotionalism has been around since the days of slavery out of which the black religious experience was birthed in what Albert Raboteau called “slave religion.”  It has its geographical genesis in middle of woods with “brush arbor” meetings away from plantations and masters’ houses in order to have an encounter with God on their own terms.  This form of black religion began to bump heads with a Eurocentric style of worship by the 19th century after the establishment of the African Methodist Episcopal church (denomination) that even had critics looking down on worship that maintained the African retentions as having “fist and heel” music according to AME Bishop Daniel Payne.

This article presents black church life as homogenous.  Particularly accompanied with a video clip, most persons will watch the video clip rather than read the article.  This is a problem for me because I get concerned when I imagine how residents of mostly white suburbs or states (such as Iowa or New Hampshire or Montana or suburban enclaves where mixture with urban dwelling blacks is kept at a minimum) would react to seeing this.  Combined with Hollywood images that when a black church scene is done they seem to take their cue from the scene from the 1980 movie The Blues Brothers.

 

 

Mainstream media fails to portray that there are black Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and various forms of Methodism and even non-denominational churches that don’t have such performative aspects of worship or preaching that is familiar to them.  To nuance it even further, many of the older all black congregations in black Baptist denominations and few Church of God in Christ churches do have preachers and pastors that do not whoop.

The reason why is because general thinking is that whooping applies to one’s emotions rather than one’s intellect.  Personally, I’d have to agree with that logic.  To use Smith’s analogy of the meat and gravy concerning the body of the sermon and whooping respectively, not all meat needs gravy to be enjoyed.  In my own personal, non-scientific observation, for many listeners one has not preached unless a certain intonation in the voice has been reached, a certain cadence has been established or some type of “frenzy” has been incited.

Amongst fellow preachers, it’s almost an issue of bragging rights.  Who’s whooping can kill a crowd?  How well are one’s vocal acrobatics that can incite a frenzy amongst a crowd.  Many black churchgoers have observed that when a preacher, usually male, gets to the close of their sermon that the whole pulpit, again, usually male, stands up and sometimes even pats the preacher on the back while in the midst of them whooping.  Often time the first row of deacons and other ministers who couldn’t fit on the pulpit vacate their pew and approach the pulpit as preacher has begun their whoop.  Engaging in the call-and-response each finding a resonant pitch with each other between the preacher, the musician and the congregation yelling back “You preachin’ Docs” and “You pullin’ it Revs” and “Put ya weight on it sirs” and the ever popular “YEAHs.”  To the untrained eye, it almost looks staged.

As much as I may have criticism about it, it’s not necessarily a staged or pre-planned production.  Rather I think the nuanced word of anticipatory describes it.  Most preachers who whoop do it every Sunday and it’s just as standard as having a morning hymn or the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed.  For some that means that it is staged and not real.  For others its a cathartic release of emotionalism that may be needed.

My personal opinion is that it becomes homiletically irresponsible when preachers whoop out of habit without being aware of how their congregation is listening to their sermon.  By listening, I don’t just mean the auditory function of hearing sounds by the receptacle of the ear, but how are their digesting and processing the information in the sermonic moment. (Granted this opens the doors to how do we as a society understand preaching, but that’s for another blog post, more certainly, a book.)

Dr. Teresa Fry Brown

 

As my preaching professor said in my Introduction to Preaching class, “the preacher informs the consciousness of the listener.”  Because many listeners expect the whoop, if they don’t get it they feel the preacher hasn’t preached, moreover, they don’t get that rush of adrenaline that high emotionalism can produce.  That’s why the article quoted Emory professor Dr. Teresa Fry Brown as saying

 

They [referring to preachers who whoop without a substantive sermon body] deliverdiabetic sermons. You have a shot of insulin, but you have to come back later…It’s like a candy high. They never look at the text; never any substance. All they give you is sounds.”

I’m quite clear that I marvel at whooping–as an art form.  In fact I get goosebumps sometimes when I hear someone do it who can do it right.  However, usually I’m most moved after a good sermon.  If I didn’t feel anything during the sermon, one doing vocal calisthenics  with a whoop and squalling into a microphone will do nothing to move me either.

If I can let you, the reader in on a little secret about being black in America: when a black person is interviewed on a national network such as CNN about a topic such as this, that one black person is the spokesperson for 37,000,000 other black folks in this country.  Let’s be honest, for that subset of whites and other non-blacks in this country who have little or no interaction with African Americans, such interviews and news stories become foundational in how they view various aspects of black culture be they negative or positive.  I’m certainly not suggesting that this portrays blacks in a negative light, but this story about whooping certainly does enforce major stereotypes about blacks being emotional in religious settings.

President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle O.

As I hinted earlier, it is my belief that in the Age of Obama, there has been this need for understanding black culture beyond a Dateline or Nightline special here and there.  I think this is because of the image of Barack Obama and Michelle Obama.  The image of a black married couple, outside of the fictional depiction of Clair and Cliff Huxtable, has not been prevalent in the social ethos of this country.  Prevailing images of blacks are usually not shown in positive or leading rolls in media outlets.  This ranges from primetime television show casts, images on the evening and nightly news, or even to Hollywood movie leads.

Then here comes Barack and Michelle.

As a result, certainly following the Jeremiah Wright situation during the campaign season of 2008, many Americans were left scratching their heads because Obama and his wife didn’t quite fit the image that they had imagined a black man.  That’s why such sideways comments were uttered even from fellow Democrats such as now Vice President Joe Biden and Sen. Harry Reid.

Mainstream media has long since diverted from having integrity in my own opinion.  They have become beholden to large corporate owners who certainly have a political agenda.  No longer are we getting our news from local newspapers with foreign bureaus or even our nightly news, but from some outlet with a 24 hour news cycle.  That’s why for CNN to portray this facet of the Black Church in America as it did surrounding whooping as so blindingly one dimensional makes me upset because I’m left wondering is this the best that our media outlets can do?

This is a time for us as a collective people to learn to think for ourselves.  In this technologically saturated society, information is at our fingertips literally. It doesn’t require us to traipse down to a library and search through dusty volumes of already dated material to learn some information, but a Google or Wikipedia search can do wonders for increasing one’s knowledge of a subject.

We have a responsibility to ourselves and above all, we have a responsibility to each other as fellow citizens living together.  Let’s do better.

Keep it uppity and keep it truthfully radical, JLL

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7 thoughts on “Mainstream Media Gets It Wrong Again: The Black Church in American Culture

  1. great post.
    although i do not consider myself religious any longer, i do recall going out of town to some churches with my parents to tiny churches in which the preacher sometimes did not go into the “whopping” portion of the sermon, and i do recall being somewhat confused….it was so common to me. when that doesn’t happen, it feels like a paper written without the closing paragraph. i’ve also visited a Mormon church, where “whooping”, singing loud (shouting) and even a “AMEN!” here or there were prohibited. and really, it isn’t church to me without the “whooping”.
    i wonder if, for black churches and black people, that this need for heightened emotionalism isn’t because we have gone through more troubling situations collectively than most groups of people in this country. had the church failed to uplift in the way that it did/does (through “whooping” or any other act that could be labeled “minstrel”), i doubt it would be such a staple of the black community today.
    that being said, i do think it can be too much when/if it’s ever present. when it’s done all the time, the preacher begins to be a character. and it becomes less about the content of their particular sermon, and more about them screaming, jumping, or acting to a congregation that’s going to give an “AMEN!” or a “PREACH!” regardless of the content. it’s difficult at times for some individuals that are trying to grasp certain concepts, or are grappling with issues like the problem of evil or a certain bible verse while the preacher is practically dancing on stage in rhythm with the bassist. but then i guess the question becomes-what is the purpose of the preacher/what has it been in the black church? if it to emotionally involve the congregation to get them to want a connection or relationship with god or is it to relay the message of the bible? is it both?
    i haven’t read the article you linked, but i would like to hear the arguments that label it minstrel.

  2. After reading a few of your articles, I am prompted spiritually to inquire about whose “intellect” do your articles reference. Specifically, as called/chosen men and women of God, “intellect” (and the source of it) is something to be considered. Proverbs 3:5-6 outright states the benefit of embracing God’s intellect and alludes to the confusion of depending on our own.

    I would simply love to discuss this more with you, as I believe you are going places (as they say…LOL). Honestly, as allowed, I would love to speak with you.

    Receive Psalm 37:4 and Matthew 9:29.

  3. ” This is a problem for me because I get concerned when I imagine how residents of mostly white suburbs or states (such as Iowa or New Hampshire or Montana or suburban enclaves where mixture with urban dwelling blacks is kept at a minimum) would react to seeing this. ”

    I’m a black college student in Iowa. This just seems to be slightly racist to me. I feel ashamed that black people actually do this weird type of stuff. But then again that’s just what I get from my up brining. My father and his parents were suit and tie Jehovah’s Witnesses (Really liberal for the denomination by the way).

    Having been to only a few meetings I’m not really able to say much, even more so considering I find my self to be an atheist on the whole god question. But I do know, that there are hardly enough black people in the middle, upper middle, or upper class to form and actually black church. I suppose if you go to the poor neighborhoods you might find a black church but even then they would be half mexican with a sparse population of bosnians as well.

    Here in Iowa, a lot of southern things are foreign as a tea ceremony from Japan is to most people in the US. I have mostly white friends and they would probably see it as strange. They know a black guy like me hasn’t experienced it anymore then they have and probably walk away with the same feelings.

    • @ Blasphimus

      Thanks for your comment.

      I’m not sure what exactly you’re finding racist about that one statement. But to address your other critiques, I don’t want you to feel ashamed for your upbringing giving you the world view that you have, however, I do believe that it’s a bit narrow-minded to be “ashamed that black people do this weird type of stuff.” This is certainly part of African American church culture.

      Also, I would have to counter factually your information to say that there aren’t enough black people to form a black church and that they would be half mexican or Bosnian. I can’t even imagine what you’re trying to get at or trying to suggest. Whatever it is you seem to hint at sounds just factually wrong.

      I would encourage you to look up the book “The Black Church in the African American Experience” by C. Eric Lincoln if you have any questions about the history behind the black Christian denominations here in the United States.

  4. I had enjoy the artice some like meat and grave some, just like meat, I only thing I will

    question, if i may, you refer President Barack Obama to Barack obama the President of the united state should be adress as that- President, you had refer the Vic President Joe Biden by his title. the same goes for the first lady.thank you for your time. please understand i learning how to write, i have know degree not even a high school or ged I’ll in school now at the age of 47, dont mean no harm, right is right and wrong is wrong, reguardless of a person education.

  5. I’m glad that I read the CNN article and read this blog post… I still have yet to read the article. All of this lends me to the following video:

    I believe it’s three. This is the late Bishop Barnett Karl Thoroughgood preaching at the Historic First Baptist Church in Norfolk, Virginia for a MLK Observance service. This church was established in 1800…the jank is old…lol. But it has a long history and tradition of scholarly pastors. If you look at the pastors (from other historic Baptist congregations) flanking Bishop Thoroughgood, they have double bars on their academic robes… Doctorates. PhD’s….

    Bishop Thoroughgood? He’s just in a chasuble. No doctorate degree… he might not have even had a college degree. He was just a preacher from the historic black community of Seatack, in Virginia Beach.

    Why did I select this video? Around this man represents leaders of congregations that normally frown upon this style of delivery. But in “the” First Baptist…they are about to go into a “praise break”? The good Rev. Dr.’s on stage…don’t know how to contain their composure? This delivery style, often thought of something belonging to the “non-uppity negroes” (lol), in “that” church? And Bishop was uniquely himself. No show…no self.

    There is a very IMPORTANT thing that has been overlooked in this discussion. That fact is the anointing of the Holy Ghost. Isaiah spoke of the yoke being destroyed because of the anointing. Certainly Paul exhorts Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved.” But to “WHOM” is the magic question…unto God. So often, as it is natural for us to do so, we attempt to quantify and categorize various aspects on this fleeting happening called human life. From early childhood development, we attempt to make sense of the world around us by what we’ve experienced and what we know. But what we “know” is of little merit in relation to truth. Truth comes from God. So versus debating the necessity of various delivery styles, let’s assess whether or not the will of God has been executed; truth from Heaven, revealed through the Word, has been shared with the people of God. It doesn’t take much to open the Bible, pick a verse, exegete the text…but it’s the anointing that breaks the yoke. And that anointing can be manifested however God wants through a soft spoken lecture or a passion filled squall (that’s what we do in VA…lol…we don’t just whoop…we squall!). Don’t get distracted by the messenger and miss the message.

    But with relation to the anointing. As a Pentecostal-Holiness preacher, I can attest for myself the metaphysical empowerment of the Holy Ghost when preaching. It’s not always just a signature style of “signing off” or “closing out” a sermon. The Holy Spirit can rest upon you so heavily that you have an explosion of passion with that sermon, as seen with Bishop… It’s an authentic expression. And it is often made evident by the response of the people; the same Holy Spirit that rests on the preacher will visit the parishioners as well. And that’s the mystery of God…where the side walk ends. Just because there is no path seen to continue on, is there yet not a path? Logic and reasoning might not be able to understand it, but we aren’t to walk by sight, but by faith. After the Preached Word has been given, I’ve seen people healed of diseases, I’ve seen families reunite, I’ve seen lost souls come to the Lord. This isn’t the only way it happens…but it is a way.

    I am known to ramble…lol. But the conclusion of the matter, in my estimation, is rather question…test the spirit by the Spirit. However God decides to move, evidence and signs will follow. Look for the signs and listen for the truth. It’s not a matter of whooping or not…is the will of God being done. That’s all that matters.

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