In Their Own Words: Slave Life and the Power of Spirituals

By Eileen Guenther
An Overview

Slavery has been called “America’s original sin.” Frederick Douglass called it “the grand aggregation of human horrors.” It ripped apart families, communities, churches, and a nation. The number of victims of slavery will never be known, nor will the extent of its poisonous effect ever be fully recognized. Its poison afflicted an entire social, political, religious and economic system and everyone in it: the owners (the victimizers) and the slaves (the victims). The balance of power was totally unequal and, in the gross immorality of slavery, it is the story of the victim that captures our hearts, our sympathy, our imagination, and our admiration.

The creators of Negro Spirituals were fiercely determined survivors of the largest forced migration in history. Many of the captives did not survive. Because of starvation, disease, and cruelty, fifteen to thirty percent of those enslaved died on the march from their African villages to the slave ship that would bring them to the New World. An estimated additional ten to fifteen percent did not survive the Middle Passage. Between the march and the Middle Passage millions of Africans died. “For every 100 slaves who reached the New World, another 40 had died in Africa or during the Middle Passage.”

The cruelty they endured, once they had been purchased and settled on a plantation, reinforced the determination to survive. The enslaved peoples’ frustration and anger at the oppression, torture, and control of body, mind, and soul are reflected in their Spirituals and in their autobiographical narratives (over 200 book-length documents) and the 2,300 interviews conducted by the Work Progress Administration.

As artist Cynthia Farrell Johnson so brilliantly captured in “Jacob’s Ladder,” the piece she has allowed me to use this for book’s cover, the Spirituals sing of hope—hope for eternal life, and hope for escape from the often diabolical control of the owner, or from the many others who controlled a slave’s life—the owner’s spouse and children, overseers, slave drivers, jail-house masters, and any white person who saw the slave doing anything arbitrarily considered wrong.

This book explores the life of the slave in its many aspects through the words of the enslaved people themselves, words from their autobiographies as well as their interviews and newspaper articles written about them. Their daily lives comprised the soil that gave birth to the Spirituals. The slave narratives are THEIR WORDS. They may be in a dialect or use terms that we have excised from our modern vocabulary, but these are their words.

Why write about the Spirituals and slavery?  To my mind, Spirituals are among the most powerful music ever created. Spirituals are universal; they apply to situations well outside of slavery. I have long felt that, as psychologist and musician Arthur Jones writes, Spirituals are “available to all persons who are prepared to open themselves to the unsettling healing power that inhabits these marvelous songs of life.” They come out of slavery, indisputably “deeply meaningful, archetypically human experiences, relevant not only to the specific circumstances of slavery but also to women and men struggling with issues of justice, freedom, and spiritual wholeness in all times and places”— yet “the spirituals [are] sources of wisdom and guidance in addressing current societal and psychological issues.”

For example, I remember a student who started to cry as we were rehearsing the Spiritual, Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child. When I asked him why he was crying, he said he was gay, had just “come out” to his family, and had then been told that he was consequently not welcome home at Christmas. At that moment, he truly felt like a motherless child.

A recent study of older African-Americans, led by Jill B. Hamilton of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Nursing, showed that, at the other end of the age spectrum, individuals not only found their feelings mirrored in the music, but that, like the creators of the Spirituals,

…song was a coping strategy for participants experiencing stressful life events who described feelings of being comforted, strengthened, able to endure, uplifted, and able to find peace.

There is beauty and genius in these “musical products of an enslaved community’s struggle with the vital human issues of life and death, hope and despair, slavery and freedom.” While focusing on the text helps identify themes and specific subjects, it takes the combination of melody and words to enable the full power of the Spiritual to come through, and it takes both to deliver the insight and healing that can transform a hurting world.

Enslaved individuals created these songs—whether we call them slave songs, plantation songs, jubilee songs, survival songs, religious songs, or sorrow songs—in a time and place in our country’s history that still evoke pain today. Their creation might have been the impetus of an individual, or it might have been a group effort. There is little information to guide us on this point, but we do know of one particular exception. Nat Turner is frequently credited with having composed Steal Away, but otherwise no single individual is credited with the composition of any Spiritual. Regardless of the details of their origins, these songs were first honed by the community and then owned by the community. They are folk songs, songs of the people, passed orally by the enslaved from person to person and community to community, just as their ancestors in Africa had done. Only after they were written down in the 1860s do we—those of us outside the community of origin—have the means to sing them. James Lovell, a former Howard University professor and author of arguably the single most important book on Spirituals, estimated their number to be in the range of 800 to1,000, while others cite numbers approaching 6,000.

Coming out of the religious conversions of the Second Great Awakening (1790-1840), the majority of the songs are religious. The greatest number of Spirituals focus on freedom, the second coming and heaven.   In addition to the songs tracing themes such as the life of Jesus and celebrating the liberation of iconic figures in the Hebrew Scriptures, I have identified approximately forty subjects. These encompass songs of resistance, coded texts (spreading news of a possible escape, or an upcoming secret meeting), and accountability, as well as songs about death, steadfastness in the face of adversity, creation, and consolation. The importance of the Bible (King James, 1611) as a source of texts cannot be overstated: There are sufficient scriptural passages captured in the Spirituals that, if the Bible were lost, the enslaved would still have enough left in the music to more than provide for their spiritual needs.

Spirituals and slave religion have been said to focus on the “compensatory” aspect of the enslaved person’s life; that is, thinking “we can put up with anything here on earth because we will have our reward in heaven.” At the same time, according to Benjamin Mays, a son of former slaves who became president of Morehouse College, Spirituals “affirm a complete trust in God to make right in the next world what was done wrong in this world. . . .The Spirituals provided an emotional security for oppressed slaves during turbulent times. Since slaves had no economic or political security in this world, they put their trust in Jesus whom they believed would make everything all right.”

Society in the American South placed little or no value on the enslaved individual. The Spiritual counters that devaluation with affirmation: “I exist, and I matter.”  The eminent theologian James H. Cone explained that “the essence of ante-bellum black religion was the emphasis on the somebodiness of black slaves. The content of the black preacher’s message stressed the essential worth of their person.” One of the most important aspects of the Spiritual is that it allowed the slave to feel a sense of personal dignity in a situation where they were treated and legally defined, in the words of philosopher and theologian Howard Thurman, as “a tool, a thing, a utility, a commodity.” This affirmation is unequivocal: “You are created in God’s image. You are not slaves…you are God’s children.” The language of Spirituals is rich and symbolic, reflecting the slaves’ African heritage. As Arthur Jones has observed, Spirituals have a “seemingly magical ability to speak to universal issues of the human spirit.”

Spirituals not only offer a mirror of slave life, they have been called “a master index of the mind of the slave.” They codify the slaves’ description and critiques of their environment.  Highlighting their important role in raising “social consciousness,”  theologian James Cone asserts that “the social mind of the slaves was a reflection of their African background, their life on southern plantations, and their encounter with slave masters, overseers, auctioneers, and buyers. The songs were a reflection of this existence, and of the measures used to deal with the dehumanization inherent in it.”

While singing these songs could sometimes be seen as an act of resistance, singing was without doubt an act of community building. When singing, each person held equal importance, with the only prominent role being that of the leader, as we hear in the most prevalent style of call-and-response. The leadership could change, of course, moving from person to person, further democratizing the singing, and participation was open to everyone.

Although much has been written about slave life by outside observers, the Spirituals give us a unique and personal view into the life of the captive from the perspective of those enslaved. Their hopes, fears, anger, and frustration virtually jump off the pages of the music. The slave narratives provide complementary critical information regarding the context in which they were created, offering us a deeper appreciation of the songs and their meaning.

Spirituals are powerful, beautiful music of sorrow and of hope. They enrich the life of the singer as well as the listener. Regardless of the race or circumstance of the singer or the audience, this is music that speaks to the human condition—and it speaks “from the heart to the heart.”

This book is intended to provide inspiration and context for those who include Spirituals in their church services and choral programs. The power of the music is vastly amplified by context: what was happening, to whom, as well as when, why, and how it affected them. Context is the prism that allows us to appreciate fully the songs of religion, the songs of protest, and the songs of despair and hope that created the slaves’ community and continue to move our spirits today.

Two notes on terminology: First, to avoid using the word “Negro” in reference to the music any more often than absolutely necessary, I have capitalized the word “Spiritual” throughout the book.  

Second, I want to acknowledge the recent desire in some academic and musical circles to avoid use of words such as “slave,” “slavery,” and “master,” terms that some feel do not indicate the full force and devastating impact of individuals being kidnapped and forced to labor for the benefit of others.  To people thus persuaded, use of such terms implies acceptance of their fate by the captive. 

There are those who take the opposite view, who say that these terms are not derogatory, nor a step back, but rather, that avoiding them would diminish the respect in which the creators of the Spirituals are held. These scholars and musicians assert that “enslaved” does not have the same impact or meaning as “slave,” and that, in fact, “slavery” was precisely the condition in which the creators of Spirituals lived and which they themselves, however reluctantly, labeled as such. To people holding this view, avoiding the word amounts to ignoring the circumstances, almost to the point of pretending slavery did not happen.

Language in the 21st century presents consistent challenges, and I value both positions. Most of all, I want to honor those who lived in insufferable conditions and yet created this beautiful music. It is my hope that this book will speak to both the conditions and the music, regardless of the terminology used. Let us not forget, the book is focused on “their own words” – the language they and their contemporaries used to describe themselves and their lives.

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