Linguist Geneva Smitherman, says the communication process of call-and-response – the spontaneous verbal and nonverbal interactions between speakers and audiences – is a fundamental organizing principle of African-American (AA) culture. In plain English Call and response enables black people to achieve the unified or spiritual harmony that is basic to the traditional African worldview. Honestly this was all lost on me as a child as I heard the shouts and moans of the crowd as they responded to the preacher and quickly surmised that it was all for show. Unfortunately, on some levels I am right but at a deeper level there is a sense of cohesiveness that comes through call and response.
The function of call-and-response is to establish and maintain spiritual harmony, to maintain a sense of group solidarity, and cultural values. However, the actual call-and-response patterns in AA culture and the typical affirmations utilized to encourage/ ensure active participation need to be examined. The most popular technique occurs between the speaker, singer, or the audience of listeners. Entire phrases or verses are sung or spoken by the leader and repeated verbatim or altered somewhat by the audience or chorus. An example of this “leader and chorus” structure is illustrated in a most Kirk Franklin songs. My wife and I have joked about these cultural differences but this is normative. As with many black spirituals, a leader sings an entire verse, and then the others join with the leader to sing the chorus.
In black religious services, worshipers engage in more than simply acknowledging the sermon with an “amen” or like responses, they actually preach back. The only observer in a AA worship service the only observer is God himself. Having been apart of many different cultural expressions of church in America I have seen this first hand. Additionally, the preacher makes statements that are frequently responded to before he completes his statement or thought. This “overlapping” and at its height the speaker and audience roles often shift with the audience doing most of the calling and the speaker doing most of the responding. This is also reflected in African music, as well as in AA music says African scholar John Miller Chernoff, all of the musicians are playing “forward toward the beat” and “pushing the beat” to make it more dynamic. This is what occurs in AA religious services when the preacher adapts and employs every verbal response from the audience in a direct search for spiritual harmony. The vitality and rhythm of life is in the unified and collective response of the audience to the speaker. In the end this seems like foolishness, or so I thought. As I looked on to the spectacle of call and response I quickly came to the decision that this type of exuberance and loud proclamation was purely for show and not worship, yet as I have grown older I have come to understand the rich history and unifying aspects of this part of my cultural background.