Published September 23rd, 2020 at 11:37 AM
“It’s not just about feeling better about ourselves,” said Will Breytspraak, director of music at Village Presbyterian Church, in explaining the congregation’s new music program.
“It’s about understanding the pain.”
Breytspraak is the driving force behind the four-week online class “Black Music Matters: Scriptures and Music of Slavery and Freedom.”
Last Wednesday, teacher and musician Evelyn White conducted the second Zoom class seated at her piano, sporadically playing a quick riff to punctuate her points about Negro spirituals. The audience, more than 100 almost all-White members of Village Presbyterian Church, sat at attention.
A year ago, that many White Gen Xers and Baby Boomers gathering online to learn about Black music and race in scripture might have seemed like a far-fetched idea. But 2020 has done nothing if not bring the unexpected into reality.
After growing up singing in the Village Church choir and then going on to teach music in adulthood, it was only natural that Breytspraak decided to use music as a vehicle for a discussion surrounding race.
“This series will give people who aren’t members of Black culture a deeper appreciation for it,” said Dr. Darian Clonts, the guest musician for tonight’s class. “When there’s a deeper appreciation for it, then maybe there can be more research about it. So that way we can continue to keep Black music alive.”
Music is one of the most influential aspects of culture — particularly African American culture. One of the earliest forms of African American music was the spiritual, formed on the American plantation. The spiritual blended Christian scriptures with both messages of hope and the sorrows of slavery. Those songs were sung by enslaved Black people to send messages to each other, pass the time during long days of grueling labor, and remind themselves of the rest waiting for them in heaven.
The spiritual was the topic of Evelyn White’s discussion last week with Will Breytspraak. The class opened with several acknowledgements from Breytspraak as well as the moderator, Reverend Dr. Rodger Nishioka. Nishioka described talking about scripture and slavery as “a fraught conversation,” and asked the group to consider why American Christians are “impotent” when it comes to discussing justice.
With the audience primed to be aware of the resistance that might rise up in them when their ideas were challenged, Breytspraak and White went on to discuss various iterations of the spiritual. Then they broadened the conversation to the importance of Black music as a whole.
The emphasis was on the iconic song “Strange Fruit,” most popularly sung by Billie Holiday. White played a video of a performance of “Strange Fruit” by her students at The Cobb County Center for Excellence in the Performing Arts. A scroll through the Zoom gallery of faces showed people engrossed in the moving production.
After that class, an attendee emailed Breytspraak to say that White’s presentation prompted him to do his own research that night, starting what could be a lifelong cultural education.
“That class was a beginning,” Breytspraak said.
Though Village Presbyterian Church has always been majority White, it has a history with standing up to racial injustice in Prairie Village. Many congregation members can tell you about how the founding minister Dr. Robert Meneilley supported the first Black family to desegregate Prairie Village. Even so, Breytspraak doesn’t want the church to rest on its laurels.
“It is a time to hold up the work that Bob Meneilley did for civil rights,” he said. “It is also essential to sometimes hold up examples of our history related to race that we’re not proud of. If we ever think that we’ve got this right we’re not learning or growing.”
“Black Music Matters” is a step in creating an open dialogue about race within the church, but that doesn’t mean that everyone in the congregation accepted the class with open arms.
“I know people who didn’t want to take this class because they didn’t want politics involved in their life,” church member and class attendee Carol Dale said.
Dale sees race not as a political issue, but as a humanitarian issue.
“Do you care for other people or do you not?” she asked. “Do you care for other people differently because of the color of their skin or do you not?”
Though Dale witnessed some resistance, by and large she was very moved by peoples’ “open mindedness and willingness to learn and do things differently.” Since her arrival several years ago, Dale has been struck by the welcoming and caring nature of Village Presbyterian Church.
Breytspraak knows that his congregation is welcoming, but he also worries about who exactly is feeling not just welcomed, but included.
“There are plenty of churches who are ready to say ‘all are welcome’, but there’s a couple of more steps after that,” he said.
Clonts is eager for his class on Black musical theatre tonight. Being a former student of Breytspraak, the two are comfortable together. Clonts also said that he “leaps at the chance” to educate others.
“I think it’s important especially in the climate that we’re in today to realize that Black music does matter, just like Black lives do matter,” he said.
He hasn’t heard of anyone else putting on a class like this and applauds the leaders of Village Church for making people “realize that they need to get up and do something” — even if that something is logging onto a class from the comfort of their own home.
Historically, the Christian church has served as the war room for the fight for Black rights. From the African Methodist Episcopal Church pushing for abolition to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in the 1960s, the church has played a role in orchestrating freedom.
Clonts wants to see this continue and spread to white churches — to see their increasing awareness of racism move them to action.
”These are all God’s people, so whether it affects our particular community or not it’s still important and it’s still something that needs to be talked about,” he said. “If it’s affecting one member of the body, it’s affecting all of us.”
“Black Music Matters” isn’t limited to church members — sign ups for the remaining classes can be found here.
Catherine Hoffman reports for Kansas City PBS in cooperation with Report for America.