“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound!” A famous hymn, known by many, sung in times of adversity, injustice, and war. A song that provides inner strength and a coming together when we need that glimpse of hope. How powerful that song can do that for us?
I have sung “Amazing Grace” countless times with my clients in long term care. I am always honoured and grateful to hold space in that music way; singing songs not from my time or from my background, sometimes not even in my language, with those who have lived through so much. My privilege shining in my access to knowledge and education, in my position of power as “therapist”, in the way I am dressed, in the place I come from, in my upbringing, in ways I am not even aware of. In my whiteness. While singing spirituals and cultural songs with clients, I set the intention of holding awareness of where these songs come from. I research the meaning of the songs, their origin, the history behind them. After singing “Amazing Grace” one day with a client, we were discussing the song and the history. I admitted, it’s a song I have known for such a long time, I never thought to research it. But I felt that because it’s based off the pentatonic (5 note) scale, or the “black scale” (only the black notes on the piano) that it must have been sung by those who were enslaved during that terrible time in history of which African Americans and black people are still suffering. The pentatonic scale, as we call it in the west, was brought to us by those who were forced on the journey from Africa. I began my research and found some articles online about “Amazing Grace”. I became puzzled reading that writing credits stated it was written by a white man, in 1772, name John Newton. Digging deeper I learned he was a slave trader. I found a video of a preacher named, Wintley Phipps, explaining this history in a passionate way that spoke to my heart.
I agree with Phipps’ statements. There is no doubt in me that John Newton heard those he enslaved singing songs using their pentatonic/black scale. A scale that many spirituals, hymns, and children’s songs, are based off of. A scale that from which most music as we know it today - blues, jazz, soul, r&b, rock, pop - has its origin. Let us honour and acknowledge this not only when society deems it that time of year because it’s “Black History Month”, but all year long.
There is more truth and history to explore and it is up to us who hold white privilege to give credit where it is due, to dismantle our own white supremacy, to work on our allyship, and become aware of the impact we can have on marginalized voices.