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‘God’s Trombones’ speak loudly today

By George F. West Jr.

On April 1, I read The Natchez Democrat and saw the heading “Public invited to God’s Trombones.” I thought it had to be a misprint.

My second major in college was drama, and I had not heard mention of “God’s Trombones” since I studied the life of James Weldon Johnson, who was a lawyer and a preacher — how about that!

But what caught me off guard was the fact that First Baptist Church was going to present it. FBC is a predominantly white church, not a predominantly black one.

The book itself is a must read if you think that men of color in bygone days lacked intelligence, for this is an excellent example of one who knew what he wanted and did not let anyone stop him from achieving. He knew that word of mouth just went so far, so he put down in writing experiences that he had witnessed with his own eyes.

We all should have someone that we follow and look up to, someone who impresses you and one that you would like to be like.

In this instance, as a young man, Johnson got a chance to hear the Negro preachers of old, the ones who had the gravel voice who could change words into music and groans into moans. They could bring tears as well as laughter to your loins, but more important could touch you, move you, make you feel something when they spoke.

I’m sure there were many who inspired him, but he selected seven, maybe because that was the number of completion, and he referred to them as “God’s Trombones,” because when they spoke it was just as if God was stroking them and they brought forth a sound and message that one would not easily forget.

In 1927, Johnson published “God’s Trombones,” seven Negro sermons in verse. He said, “these sermons are meant to honor the American Negro folk sermon and the trombone like voices of the great preachers who created, preserved, advanced and immortalized the sermons.”

As we look at his reference, we think of what many scholars called “The song sermon.” It’s very impressive and keeps your attention. Even now, many ministers use it in their messages.

We probably know excerpts from some of these great sermons, for example, “The Creation” — “And God stepped out on space, and he looked around and said that’s good,” or from “The Prodigal Son” — “Young man, your arms are too short to box with God.”

Let’s see, the sermons are “The Creation,” “Go Down Death,” “Noah Built the Ark,” “The Crucifixion,” “Let my People Go” and “Judgment Day.” I think that’s as far as I can go!

Now, as I close, James Weldon Johnson as a youth, as I understand it, didn’t just enjoy the preaching, but the song sermon preaching, the dancing and the singing. All of these things make you feel good when you’ve had a bad and long day. The preacher would give you hope and a kind of joy that the world could not give you.

I salute and thank First Baptist Church for opening its doors and enlightening man and woman kind that God is no respector of person, and you’ve got good preachers in all races.

I wish the best for L. Graham Smith, the music minister, and pray that his works and efforts will not be in vain. I thank him for his courage, even in today’s society, for bringing back to our remembrance one that has touched many of our lives and the one that gave us what is fondly referred to as the “Negro National Anthem,” “Lift every voice and sing.”

I will say this, you are opening up a beautiful can of worms, for when you seek and rummage through the works of many who were enslaved and deprived of their rights and liberties and see how they fought back with violence, words or song, you are going to find men and women of courage who boldly would say, “If it had not been for God on my side, where would I be?”

Not only were they a praying people, but believing people, that one day the day would come when recognition would be visible and hopefully in the hearts and minds of all mankind.

George F. West Jr. is a Natchez resident.

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