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PURIST vs TOURIST Seeking the Harlem Religious Experience

Harlem One Stop recieved the following letter seeking our opinion with regard to the effect (if any) tourists are having on the traditional Harlem church experience.

The letter was particually timely, as just today, while moving about Harlem with a group of students visiting from Missouri we were amazed to see the large number of tourists to be spotted in front of First Corinthian, Canaan, Memorial, Mt Neboh and Abyssinian Baptist Churches.

We welcome both resident and visitor comments to the letter below.

Hello Everyone,

The following is an excerpt from Dr. Howard Thurman’s book on Spirituals. I would like you to read it and as a means of opening dialogue on a problem (although you may not consider it a problem) now faced by African American churches in New York City – the inundation of tourists. I’m in the beginning stages of collecting information to write an informal essay on the topic and would like your opinion.

As you know, many of the tourists come for the music or as they say “the gospels.” Consider if the situation were in reverse and 200 or more African Americans showed up at a church on the Upper East Side one Sunday, unannounced, dressed and behaving in the way some tourists have, what do you think would happen? Does this influx change the nature of worship within the sanctuary? Does the corporate yet private act of worship change when there are hundreds of others in the room who do not belong to your fellowship? Has this phenomenon of cultural tourism had a positive or negative or even neutral effect on your fellowship? Would you change anything as it stands now?

Would you please take the time to read the brief excerpt below, with special attention to the third paragraph. It is a jumping off point to begin our conversation. I hope to hear from you!

Best regards,


The General Introduction1

The reprinting of Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death in a single volume at this time may call for an explanation.

All through the intervening years since the mid-forties when they first appeared, there has been an intermittent but consistent demand for them. This demand was greatly intensified during the period marked by a fresh sense of root or collective self-awareness brought into sharp focus by the tempests of the Civil Rights Movement. Despite the primary secular and political character of the movement it found sources of inspiration and courage in the spiritual insights that had provided a windbreak for our forefathers against the brutalities of slavery and the establishing of a ground of hope undimmed by the contradictions which held them in tight embrace. Often those who were most involved in the throes of the struggle were not aware of the dimension of this flow of courage from the past; nevertheless, it was a brooding presence in myriad rallies in a thousand churches which gave refuge and support to young and old in the heights and depths of the agonies of the 60’s.

Many of my young friends have queried me at one critical point. Why is there so little attention given to the part that protest and resistance played in the life of our forefathers as expressed in the Spirituals? It is in order to state quite frankly, that initially these essays were addressed to a generation which tended to be ashamed of the Spirituals or who joined in the degrading and prostituting of the songs as a part of conventional minstrelsy or naive amusement exploited and capitalized by white entertainers. The aim was to denigrate and casually humiliate. It seemed urgent to me to explore the ground of hope and self-respect in the idiom of the Spirituals. The element of protest was recognized in my exploration but was not emphasized. This seemed to me to make their timelessness more readily available to meet the new urgencies of that generation and, in my judgment, of subsequent generations.

My first formal statement of the religious significance of these songs was a series of chapel addresses to the students at Morehouse and Spelman Colleges in the academic year 1929-30. Six years earlier, during my senior year in college, there was an incident that precipitated my reflection upon the meaning of the Spirituals. A small party of visitors from the General Education Board was presented in chapel. After their minor greetings to us, on cue, the director of Music walked to the front and gave the key for the student who let the Spirituals.

The student sang the first line and normally, the whole student body would come in with the body of the text as the swell of a great organ. But we did not respond. This was repeated — no response. The President of the college was embarrassed profoundly. In the evening, a special assembly was called and the entire student body was soundly reprimanded. The response to him was very simple. “We refuse to sing our songs to delight and amuse white people. The songs are ours and a part of the source of our own inspiration transmitted to us by our forefathers.”

Finally, these essays are intimate and personal. They lay bare in my hand the gift which these songs, centuries old, are to my own spirit. For me, they are watering places for my own spirit and have enabled me to affirm life when its denial would be more ego satisfying to honor my own heritage and rejoice in it.

“To stay in the filed

To stay in the filed

Until the war is ended.”

1 Introduction from Deep River and The Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death, Dr. Howard Thurman, Friends United Press, Dublin , IN 1975, pp. 5, 6.

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