“The spirituals are historical songs which speak about the rupture of Black lives; they tell us about a people in a land of bondage, and what they did to hold themselves together and to fight back.”
James H Cone,
The Spirituals and The Blues:
In keeping with the National Experience as seen through a specific American art or culture form, my unit will focus on the slave experience, in particular, the role of the Black Spiritual.
Africans entered the American scene not as immigrants seeking opportunity, freedom and fortune, but as slaves condemned to a vile, hostile existence. They came in chains bringing nothing but their African tradition. This tradition, extraordinary in art, religion, song and poetry, combined with the American version of slavery, provided the catalyst for developing the Black Spiritual.
The Black Spiritual is rooted in African folk music. To understand and appreciate the spirituals some discussion on the African folk community is necessary. A folk community dictates and sings the entire range of it’s experiences and deep concerns. Subject matter for songs comes from deep felt community reaction to significant symbols and events in the community life. They are never the borrowed concerns of other people. They are always the original expressions and concerns of the community tempered in its tradition. A brief overview of the African folk community regarding; 1. basic religious beliefs, 2. personality, 3. politics and economics, 4. musical and artistic heritage, will be provided later in this narrative.
There is an abundance of interesting, well written, books about the spirituals. Given the size limitations of this unit, I have provided only an introduction to the Black spiritual which I hope will inspire the reader to use my bibliography for a more in-depth study.
My unit is constructed in three parts. Part one will study the African folk traditions which greatly influenced and contributed to the creation of the Black Spiritual. Part two will examine Black spirituals, focusing on their purpose, the needs they filled in their creators, themes and the use of literary device. Part three will suggest lessons designed to bring this information into the classroom as a source of inspiration, motivation, and pride for New Haven school children.
As an art teacher I will use the bold vivid descriptions and the powerful emotional content of spirituals as inspiration for painting. It is my intention that the research I have provided serve as a take off point for further expansion in interdisciplinary areas of study.
There are three goals I want to achieve through the teaching of the Black Spirituals. First, I want to raise the level of consciousness of my students regarding Black history and Black American history, their heritage; a heritage rich in culture and accomplishment, a heritage which should make them proud to be Black. Proud to be Black, is a theme I plan to develop into a lesson plan for mural work further along in the paper. What prompted me to think this goal to be so important and necessary is due to an experience I had in preparation for this paper. I went to a local music shop to buy some tapes on Black spirituals. The clerk, a young Black man, asked me if that was the name of a new group. My students know little of their history and culture. This cultural deficiency must be recognized and dealt with to develop each students potential. The shared cultural heritage that is lacking in my students can be provided through the study of spirituals.
Second, I want them to create substantial art, something that they can be proud of. Most of my kids have experienced limited success. My objective is to have them experience the pride in creation arising out of seeing their own ideas, thoughts, and efforts come together in the form of a substantial piece of art work. Something that can show them that they can achieve and succeed with tenacious hard work and effort. For an art project to be successful it must have something substantial to express, be it a strong emotion, novel insight, or an imaginative idea. The lack of feeling for and attention to content results in meaningless superficial art. For whatever reasons, be it limited exposure, lack of outside stimulation and experience, the most difficult part of drawing (visual expression) for my students is getting started, what to say. They are insecure and unfocused as to subject matter. They say they cannot draw this or that, they ask to trace or copy, they ask me to draw for them, they think in stereotypes, and most of my students have not developed the necessary skills to deal comfortably in the abstract. This difficulty with focus is a result of not having a strong emotional response to the subject. Here is where I believe the spirituals will be of great value. Spirituals will provide the emotional response necessary to motivate my students into action. Motivation and success go hand in hand. The motivated person is the successful person. I will use the art of Jacob Lawrence of the historical figures Frederick Douglas and Harriet Tubman as a model. This will have the double benefit of showing a successful Black contemporary artist’s work on two important historical Black figures.
Third, I want to teach the techniques necessary to create substantial art. I will do this by teaching inspiring subject matter. I have always found that once students find what they want to say they become excited and eager to learn the skills necessary to visually communicate these feelings and ideas.
As to other interdisciplinary areas of study, the language arts teacher will find spirituals rich in literary devices such as simile, metaphor, personification, mask and symbol. For example, my school has a gospel chorus. I plan to ask them to sing some of the spirituals at the unveiling or showing of the murals. Beyond the obvious musical applications the spiritual served as a communication network, the grapevine telegraph, for the underground railroad. The social studies teacher will find fertile ground for examining the life, times, and condition of the slave on the Southern plantation.