"When Blood Cries"
July 16, 2006
The Rev. E. Dewey Smith Jr. bangs on the pulpit with his fist. He shuts his eyes and moans. Then a high-pitched sound rises from his throat like the wail of a boiling tea-kettle.
"I wish you'd take the brakes off and let me preach," he tells his congregation during his Sunday morning sermon.
Rows of parishioners stand to shout. One woman in a satiny blue dress jumps up and down like she's on a pogo stick. A baby starts to cry.
Smith had already given his congregation the "meat" of his message: scriptural references, archaeological asides, modern application -- all the fancy stuff he learned in seminary. Now he was about to give them the gravy.
It was the time to "whoop."
"One Tuesday morning, I heard the voice of Jesus saying, 'C'mon unto me and rest," Smith shouts as he punctuates his delivery with a series of guttural gasps and shrieks backed up by an organist's riffs. "But can I tell you what I did? I came to Jesus, just as I was. And I found in him joy in sorrow. Somebody shout yes. Yeessssss!"
To whoop or not whoop?
Smith may have sounded like he was screaming. But those who grew up in the African-American church know better. He was whooping. He was practicing an art form that's divided the black church since slavery.
Whooping is a celebratory style of black preaching that pastors typically use to close a sermon. Some church scholars compare it to opera; it's that moment the sermon segues into song.
Whooping pastors use chanting, melody and call-and-response preaching to reach parishioners in a place where abstract preaching cannot penetrate, scholars say.
Whooping preachers aim "to wreck" a congregation by making people feel the sermon, not just hear it, says the Rev. Henry Mitchell, a scholar who identified the link between whooping and African oral traditions.
"The old folks used to say, 'If you ain't felt nothing, you ain't got nothing,''' Mitchell says.
Yet the black church has long been ambivalent about whooping. Some scholars say contemporary black churches are abandoning whooping because they think it's crass. But more white preachers are discovering it through YouTube and by sharing the pulpit with black preachers.
The most persistent debate over whooping revolves around its legitimacy. Is it fair to call it an art form? What's so hard about a preacher screaming and sweating in the pulpit?
Those are the critics who say whoopers are minstrels, not ministers.
"The hairs on the back of my neck stand up when people say that," says the Rev. Martha Simmons, a whooping preacher and scholar. "It is a genuine art form."
Simmons says the best whoopers use their voices like instruments. They're following rules of rhythm, tone and melody. All good whoopers have some "music" in their throat, says Simmons, editor of "Preaching with Sacred Fire," an anthology of black sermons dating back to 1750.
If you think whooping is easy, Simmons says, try listening to a preacher who can't whoop but tries to anyway.
"It's like listening to someone try to sing opera who is not an opera singer," she says. "It's a train wreck."