The Drinking Gourd

Cosmology: Part One

The Drinking Gourd
Thursday, August 29, 2019

The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. —Psalm 19:1-4

Religion and astronomy have never been too far apart. Throughout time, humans have looked to the night sky for guidance and meaning. Dr. Barbara Holmes writes about the experience of enslaved Africans who were kidnapped from their homes and carried across the ocean. Their sense of reality was displaced, disordered, disrupted. And yet their connection to the cosmos endured. In studying the past, we are better equipped to move into the future. Holmes writes:

Interest in the historical retrieval of sub-Saharan African archaeo-astronomy is relatively recent. But there is evidence of scientific engagement on the African continent that may rival European probes of the cosmos. Whether this information can be recovered is not known at this time [2002], but initial findings are intriguing. Examples of cosmological artifacts have been found at many African sites, including Lake Turkana, the Sudan, Zimbabwe, Mali, and Burkina Faso. . . . The children of the African diaspora should know that their ancestors also looked up and considered the cosmos as an integral part of their lives.

In North America, cosmology played an important part in slave escapes to freedom. They knew that freedom was north, and they knew that the North Star (Polaris) could guide their feet. The North Star is located at the end of the [Little] Dipper. As slaves used hollowed-out gourds to dip water, they renamed the constellation “the drinking gourd” to match their own cultural understandings. However, many natural obstacles stood between the star and the land journey. After a few mishaps, members of the Underground Railroad began to send teachers south to teach the slaves the most advantageous route. . . .

The routes were sometimes taught in coded songs. One particular song is entitled “Follow the Drinking Gourd.”. . . The song taught them to leave during winter so that they would encounter a frozen Ohio River that would be easier to traverse. The words are poignant:

When the sun comes back and the
first quail calls follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is waiting
for to carry you to freedom,
if you follow the
drinking gourd.

The dead trees show you the way,
left foot, peg foot, traveling on
follow the drinking gourd.

The river ends between two hills.
Follow the drinking gourd.
There’s another river on the other side,
follow the drinking gourd.

Where the great big river meets
the little river, follow the drinking gourd.
For the old man is awaiting to carry
you to freedom if you follow
the drinking gourd.

Once again music, movement, and rhetoric/teaching are the components that liberate. The environmental signposts guide seekers of freedom; the songs connect to the basic elements of spirit and matter.

Reference:
Barbara A. Holmes, Race and the Cosmos: An Invitation to View the World Differently (Trinity Press International: 2002), 83, 85-86.

Image credit: Starry Night Over the Rhône (detail), Vincent van Gogh, 1888, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. —Psalm 19:1-4

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