Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now I’m found was blind, but now I see…
I remember hearing the above song Amazing Grace throughout my childhood. I know the words to the beginning stanza so well that whenever I hear the fi rst few bars of the melody, I sing along by rote. I had always assumed that the tune was an old gospel hymn and I was supposed to repeat the lyrics in the same manner that I automatically stand and croon with pride James Weldon Johnson’s Black National Anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing. Although I clearly understand what the lyrics mean as I chant Lift Every Voice and Sing, I was clueless about the meaning behind the words for Amazing Grace.
The music has a beautiful soothing tone. The popular hymn is known around the world. I’ve heard Amazing Grace played in all kinds of movies throughout the years. I’ve witness hearing the mantra sung at funerals. Another assumption I had was that the song was written by a slave in the 1800’s as they toiled in the cotton fi elds down south to keep their minds focused on better days ahead. However, when I listen to the lines I wonder why did the slave refer to themselves as a wretch?
I searched for the definition of the word wretch in the dictionary. Wretch (rech) noun. One driven out, to drive out, topunish. 1. a miserable or unhappy person; person in deep distress or misfortune. 2. a person who is despised or scorned. If the song was written by a slave, how did this uneducated, fi rst generation African person know the meaning of the word wretch much less how to spell it? Those questions popped into my mind every time I heard the emotion fi lled song. I would stop thinking long enough to let the fi rst verse of the haunting music cause my body to sway from side to side.
Last year, the answer to my question came to me in an unusual way. Someone suggested that I see a 2007 movie directed by Michael Apted entitled Amazing Grace. As I viewed the fi lm, I noticed I would ask myself the following questions over and over: Why didn’t I learn this in middle school? Why didn’t I learn this in high school? Why didn’t I learn this in college? Why didn’t I learn this year before?
A European man named John Newton wrote the lyrics to the song Amazing Grace in the 1700’s. Newton composed the song as a priest in England. But before that, he was the captain of a slave ship. Now I know why he used to word wretch because he certainly was one. When he reached Europe after a three week voyage, he later sold the Africans to the highest bidder. The slaves worked the sugarcane fi elds so that the British would have sugar for their tea.