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Celebrating Black History Month #18

There are a number of characteristics of the spiritual "O Mary, Don't You Weep" that some will find confusing. Why is Mary mourning? Perhaps it is a reference to Mary at the foot of the cross (John 19:25), witnessing the death of her son, Jesus. Perhaps it refers to Mary Magdalene weeping at the empty tomb (John 20:13, "Woman, why are you weeping? … They have taken away my Lord ") or to her meeting and not recognizing the resurrected Jesus in the garden immediately following (John 20:15, "Woman, why are you weeping? … Sir, if you have taken him away, tell me where you have laid him…").

But what does the weeping New Testament Mary have to do with the drowning of Pharaoh's army in the Red Sea 1,400 years earlier (Exodus 14:26-31)? The answer lies in the secret or coded messages found in many of the spirituals, including this one. As the slaves lived and labored under the oppression of their owners and masters, they suffered as did Israel under the Egyptians. It was acceptable to the oppressors for the slaves to sing about Mary weeping and mourning and about the drowning of Pharaoh's army. These were, after all, biblical events. They may have even been amused by what they perceived as obvious ignorance and confusion of the slaves who somehow connected the two seemingly unrelated events of crucifixion and drowning. But the slaves understood the connection: Tt was the escape of the persecuted from death and bondage -- Jesus from the tomb, Israel from Egypt. It was the promise of their own future freedom and liberation from the misery of slavery. They could sing this spiritual with its secret message unrecognized by their masters.