In many ways, an examination of this period is difficult for students to face. As mentioned, they tend to view the times with a combination of embarrassment and anger. Many adults would agree with their assessment, though for different reasons. Both the historical information presented and its related poetry will attempt to demonstrate to students the fact that within the confines of their enslavement, African Americans did more than their best to survive and even to rebel. Despite considerable odds against them, they did not sit idly by and accept their fate. They learned to read and write, developed skills in many areas, maintained a strong religious foundation, established their own marriage rites, sang their own songs of protest, and even escaped to freedom, not to mention the more subtle forms of defiance they developed. Poetry relevant tey developed. Poetry relevant twill accompany the historical information presented. It will emphasize the fact that enslaved African American did indeed have pride and certainly did protest.
To achieve this goal, the unit will draw upon Negro spirituals, folk poetry, and the works of some early African American poets. These pieces will help students grasp the determination and courage existing during the period of slavery. "Get on Board Little Children," "Steal Away to Jesus," "Go Down Moses," and other songs, which many students know so well, will take on additional meaning as students are able to see the role the words played in maintaining hope as well as in providing a means of communicating impending plans of escape. A song like "Oh Freedom" was sung at secret plantation meetings for years. It has survived to become one of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement.
And before I'd be a slave
I'll be buried in my grave
Now Is Your Time
, p. 60.)
The help of the music teacher, and perhaps a parent, if one is available, will be enlisted to assist in preparing these spirituals for an appropriate musical presentation. Naturally, some will be part of the group's final presentation.
Folk poetry from this period will be discussed both to examine its dialect and its humor, and its much more serious message. Read the words of "We Raise de Wheat."
We raise de wheat,
Dey gib us de corn….
We skim de pot,
Dey gib us de liquor,
And say dat's good enough for nigger.
The Black Poets
, p. 20.)
Perhaps the first known African American author of a poem, Lucy Terry will be introduced to illustrate to students that legitimate poetry was being created during this time period. This poem was transmitted only orally for nearly 100 years before being printed in 1855. Though this poem, "Bars Fight," (Clinton, I, Too, Sing America, p.13.) vividly retells the story of a 1746 Indian raid on the settlers of a town in Massachusetts, it presents an extremely negative image of Native Americans. This should stimulate a worthwhile discussion. "Why might Terry have felt the way she did about the raid? Was there anything you would have agreed with? What would you tell her that might influence her feelings? What are some factors that help develop negative feelings toward a group of people?"
George Moses Horton (1797 - 1881) was born a slave. Though later self-educated, he had to memorize his first poems. Some of these poems were heard by students at the University of North Carolina who arranged to have some published. Though remaining a slave, he continued his writings in which he attacked slavery and expressed his desire for freedom. His works, such as "On Liberty and Slavery" were praised. To speak out against slavery, and to be published during this period makes Horton worthy of presentation here.
Come Liberty, thou cheerful sound,
Roll through my ravished ears…
I, Too, Sing America
, p. 21.)
Although not an African American, the Quaker, John Greenleaf Whittier's poem, "Farewell of a Virginia Slave Mother" both depicts some of the agony inflicted by slavery and illustrates that a white man could feel some of its pain and was willing to speak.
Gone, gone---sold and gone
To the rice-swamps dank and lone,
From Virginia's hills and waters, ---
Woe is me, my stolen daughters!
The Poetry of the Negro
, p. 641.)
Finally the defiant, though joyous words of some unnamed, former slave will conclude the period of enslavement.
No more auction block for me.
No more, no more!
No more auction block for me;
Many thousand gone.
No more driver's lash for me,
No more, no more!
No more driver's lash for me;
Many thousand gone.
Many Thousand Gone
, p. 143.)