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Don Wycliff


Black and Catholic

Early on in his novel Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison depicts a fateful encounter between his young protagonist, a college student, and Jim Trueblood, a sharecropper who has brought disgrace upon himself and the local black community by impregnating his own teenage daughter. Trueblood explains how it happened—only incidentally for the benefit of the college student, mainly for the benefit of the elderly white trustee for whom the young man is serving as driver during his visit to the college. And Trueblood ends his story by relating his anguished search for solace. He goes to his preacher, but the preacher sends him away. He moves out of his house because his wife and his daughter both have rejected him. He is in agony. And then:

"Finally, one night, way early in the mornin', I looks up and sees the stars and I starts singin'. I don't mean to, I didn't think 'bout it, just start singin'.

I don't know what it was, some kinda church song, I guess. All I know is I ends up singin' the blues. I sings me some blues that ain't never been sang before, and while I'm singin' them blues I makes up my mind that I ain't nobody but myself and ain't nothin' I can do but let whatever is gonna happen, happen. I made up my mind that I was goin' back home and face Kate; yeah, and face Matty Lou too."

This passage came to mind again and again as I read To Stand on the Rock, which is about nothing so much as the saving power of black music.

As Fr. Joseph A. Brown tells it, black music—the authentic stuff, the kind that resonates with Africa and the sweltering American South, that combines slavery and the faux freedom that followed it, that comes from the depths of the souls of people whose unique characteristic is a history of enslavement—can save individuals from insanity, families from fragmentation, communities from disintegration. As with Ellison's Jim Trueblood, it can restore order to a soul in chaos and call forth strengths that individuals did not know they possessed. ...

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