To provide some insight into the authors of the Black Spiritual I will talk about slave hierarchy on the plantation. The children of mixed blood, illegitimate children of slave and master unions, were house servants. They were the elite of Black plantation society.
The middle rank of slaves were the artisans, who enjoyed a better existence than the field hands, but not as good as the mixed blood elite.
The field hands were on the bottom rung of the ladder. They were the most suppressed and had least access to the white world. As a result of this forced segregation, outside musical influences were minimal and the African musical traditions survived. It was this group that gave birth to the Black Spiritual. As art is a function of the middle class, scant documentary evidence of slave art exists. Blacks made art items for White use. These were patterned after White requirements from copy books. Baskets, vessels and utensils made by slaves for slaves were the only true folk art. There are two main reasons for this lack of physical artifacts. First, the slaves did not have the materials necessary to create art, and second, they had no leisure time to work on art projects.
According to Elsa Honig Fine, as stated in
The Afro American Artist
, “Afro-American music developed as the folk expression of an oppressed people who were denied most other means of creative experience. Music and dance sprung from grass roots.”2
Just as his African ancestors believed a strong sense of community reinforced, enhanced and nurtured the individual, so to the slave knew his strength came from being apart of his new community. This new community, according to Lovell in,
Black Song; The Forge and The Flame
, the spiritual served many purposes: “(1) to give community a true, valid, and useful song; (2) to keep the community invigorated; (3) to inspire the uninspired individual; (4) to enable the group to face its problems; (5) to comment on the slave situation; (6) to stir each member to personal solutions and to a sense of belonging in the midst of a confusing and terrifying world; (7) to provide a code language for emergency use.”3
According to Lovell there are three main cultural themes in the Black spirituals: “(1) a desire for freedom; (2) a desire for justice in the judgment upon his betrayers; and (3) a tactic battle, the strategy by which he expected to gain an imminent future.”4
The predominant theme was freedom. Freedom was a dangerous topic for slaves to sing about. Punishment was swift and brutal for anyone misfortunate enough to be perceived as even thinking about it, never mind actually singing about it.
Yet the majority of spirituals dealt with freedom. The slave mind was ingenious. Through the use of mask, symbol and double entendre, he was able to disguise the true meaning of his songs and make them palatable to his unsuspecting master. Slave holders did not allow slaves to worship openly and sing their songs without an authorized White person monitoring their meetings. Because of this the spiritual writer was forced to carry mask and symbol to new heights. By using them they were able to write songs that dealt with every phase of slave life without fear of being punished. They were even able to depict evil masters.
Lovell states it perfectly in
Black Song; The Forge and The Flame
, “As great poets, the makers of the spirituals had stronger reasons even than these for using mask and symbol. They knew, by instinct, that mask and symbol are a part of the means of hurling the poetic point into the heart of the listener with devastating effect. They also knew that the real purpose of artistic inspiration is not expression but impact.”5
The slave author often drew upon Biblical imagery to mask his yearning for freedom such as in “The Walls Come A Tumbling Down,” and “Let My People Go.”
The songs went beyond just singing about freedom. The African pride was strong and the mind ingenious. These two factors combined with their uncanny ability to use mask and symbol in song formed the “grapevine telegraph.” The “grapevine telegraph” was an amazing phenomenon. Through their songs the slaves developed an ingenious system of communicating intelligence amongst themselves. This network not only covered the South but penetrated the North via the underground railroad. To serve this system, songs of defiance were written. Each had Biblical implications that covered what the singer was really saying. Thus, Christianity was used as a source for ideals and models only because it was available, least suspect, and most stimulating for expressing their desires for freedom. Through directions given in these songs many slaves escaped via the underground railroad.
Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to teach her friends how to throw off bloodhounds. Nat Turner used “Steal Away” to call his friends together for secret meetings. “The Chariots’ A Comin” was sung via the grapevine telegraph to call someone to the underground railroad. “Good News Member” reported by the same telegraph that a runaway slave reached freedom. “Follow de Drinkin Gou’d” (the drinking gourd was the Big Dipper), served as the musical and poetic map for one line of the underground railroad. Other songs of defiance which helped to bring slaves out of bondage are “Old Chariot,” “Didn’t My Lord Deliver Daniel,” “The Gospel Train is Coming” and “Steal Away to Jesus” which meant to escape and go North. These songs speak directly and immediately to the heart of the listener.
Spirituals focused on the theme of going home. James H. Cone in
The Spirituals and The Blues
said it best, “Home was an affirmation of the need for community. it was the place where mother, father, sister, and brother had gone. To be sure, the slave wanted to make it to heaven so he could put on his “golden Slippers and walk all over Gods heaven”; he wanted to see the “pearly gates” and the “golden streets”; and he wanted to “chatter with the Father, argue with the Son” and “tell um ’bout the world [he] just come from.” But most of all, he wanted to be reunited with his family which had been broken and scattered in the slave marts.”6
The biggest folk hero was King Jesus. Slaves identified with his suffering and used his triumph over the evils of the world as inspiration and motivation to get through their difficult existence. Great examples of the Jesus theme are “Dere’s No One Lak Jesus,” King Jesus is the Rock,” and “Give Me Jesus.”
The Negro slave was fascinated with occupations and objects that they associated with justice and freedom and used these symbols in their songs. For example, water was associated with freedom. Water can wash away sin, renew and refresh, and transport. The Africans were brought across the ocean on slave ships and believed that on ships they would make the return trip home. As a result, numerous spirituals dealt with water, boats, ships and rivers, for example, “De Ship is in de Harbor.” “Old Ship of Zion,” and “Roll Jordan.”
Trains, and the importance of meeting trains, found great play in the spirituals, “Same Train,” “Gospel Train,” and “You Better Git Yo’ Ticket.”
Keys and gates opened doors, to freedom. Swords and shields were signs of fighting and struggling which, the slave felt he was always doing. Transportation themes were often used. Arks and chariots were very popular as in “The Old Ark’s A Movering,” and “Swing Lo Sweet Chariot”—both were exotic forms of transportation to carry one to better places. Shepherding was the occupation the slaves most admired. Two of their folk heroes, Jesus and David, were shepherds. Shepherds were associated with kindness endurance and bravery, and were probably seen as a version of a field hand. The slave found significant meaning in the fact that Christ was nailed onto a cross and can identify with the fact that he, like themselves, was a gentle innocent victim.
Education and the determination for self improvement were important to the slave just as they were to his African forefathers. The ability to read and write was recognized as their greatest weapon against slavery. Songs such as “My Lord’s Writing All the Time,” and “Gwine to Write Massa Jesus,” are narratives of a personal desire to learn how to write. A perfect example of this desire can be found in Frederick Douglass and the extremes he went through to attain these skills.
Like his African ancestors, the slave was a realist. He dealt with his problems in a positive, optimistic way.
Spirituals clearly spelled out real life problems but also offered solutions. The solutions offered were always within human capacity, but required strength of character. Two examples are “Study War, No More,” and “Keep A-Inchin’ Along Like a Po’ Inch Worm.”
Slaves actively sought Heaven. They believed Heaven did not come easy. The journey to salvation was a difficult one, hence, strength of character was a great concern. Heroes were not only admired but were perceived as role models. Identifying with heroes was a way of overcoming great obstacles and easing pain. A hero bore pain with silent indignation. “Nobody Knows the Trouble I’ve Seen” was written by a Negro slave whose trials were almost more than he could bear. After his wife and children were sold away, he poured out his sorrow in this song, achieving a great personal victory over adversity. Another good example of this same theme is “I must walk my lonesome valley.”
An outstanding quality and accomplishment of the Black spiritual is its bold, exciting use of simile, metaphor and personification. An example of each follows:
“Simile: O the Religion That My Lord Gave Me/Shines Like a Mornin Star” Metaphor: “My Mother’s Broke the Ice and Gone”
Personification: “Death Ain’t Nothin But a Robber Don’t You See.”7
The spiritual displayed a profound proficiency in the use of literary device and the expression of philosophical characteristics of the folk community.
Because these songs were composed in secret, hand clapping had to replace the drum and highly rhythmic body movements, such as swaying and nodding the head, replaced dance.
Most songs are a careful organization of a vivid first line, a middle refrain line, and a chorus. Emphasis and strength are placed on the first line, which is usually the summation of the community and poet’s philosophical discovery.
In summary, the Negro spiritual was the natural outcome of two powerful forces fated to unite. The illfated African, rich in cultural heritage, and the insensitive American, blind in his greed, were joined together through slavery. The product of this union is a curiously beautiful, poignant body of music called the Negro spiritual. As an art form, this body of music has survived centuries and is still being performed. Its longevity is testimony to its greatness.