That’s the Day: “Come Sunday”

I have long been a reader of The New York Times’s “Sunday Routine” series. I read the accounts of Sundays by notable New Yorkers and think about the absence of routine from my own Sundays. The only thing consistently true about the way I experience Sunday is that there is very little that might be said to be routine about it. Even as a girl growing-up in a Catholic household, church was not a consistent part of my week because we might attend mass on Wednesday or Saturday; in fact, I liked that about Catholic worship. Most of my friends were Baptist and they seemed to be in church all day on Sunday and I didn’t like the idea of spending the entire day in church before having to return to school. For a while, I thought the same thing about attending church on Sunday in relationship to work on Monday. And even if Catholics experienced a shorter service, I didn’t like the idea of having a requirement to attend service one day before returning to highly structured and regimented  environments like school and work. My thoughts about Sunday worship began to change the more I thought about the meaningfulness of Sunday worship for African Americans.

Historian Jacqueline Jones stressed the importance of Sunday for the formerly enslaved through their experience of work. According to Hannah Davidson, a woman formerly enslaved in Kentucky, “Work, work, work” characterized her day; except Sunday, as it was “the only time they [those enslaved] had to themselves.” The rhythm of “work, work, work” as a defining aspect of black life continued far beyond the period of enslavement. Sunday was an important day for worship and physical as well as spiritual recovery. Spiritual renewal was certainly important in an environment where terror reigned. Here I am thinking about lynching, rape, and mob violence that threatened and claimed black life from the late 19th century through much of the 20th. As James H. Cone notes in The Cross and The Lynching Tree, “On Sunday morning at church, black Christians spoke back in song, sermon, and prayer against the ‘faceless, merciless, apocalyptic vengefulness of the massed white mob,’ to show that trouble and sorrow would not determine our final meaning.” For African Americans, Sunday was a day of witness and meaning making.

In a post some time ago, I wrote a little bit about Sundays. At that time, I was interested in designating a part of each Sunday to sharpening my listening skills and thus thinking about how I could become more reflective. Since then, I’ve continued thinking about my relationship to the history of African American meaning making and Sunday’s role in that production. I’m interested in participating in that history by reflecting on moments where I find Sunday meaningfully appearing in African American texts; so I begin with “Come Sunday.”

Duke Ellington first recorded the song in 1944 but it wasn’t until 1958 that he collaborated with Mahalia Jackson to produce the version featured at the top of the page. The song speaks to the hope of Sunday in a deeply affecting way. It reflects African American faith in God’s capacity to renew the soul and spirit of rightfully exhausted folk. The mournfully optimistic song addresses itself in the perfect pitch to the weary faithful.

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