Songs of Remembrance

Article excerpt

The publication of P. Sterling Stuckey's 1968 essay, "Through the Prism of Folklore: The Black Ethos in Slavery," marked a defining moment in research of African American cultural history by challenging stereotypical treatments of slave life and culture published during the first half of the 20th century by such prominent historians as Ulrich B. Phillips, Stanley Elkins, and Samuel E. Morrison, and Henry S. Commager. (1) Stuckey argued in "Through the Prism of Folklore" that the dehumanizing process of slavery in North America did not inhibit slaves from forging cultural traditions that allowed them "to maintain their essential humanity." (2) In advocating the use of slave oral traditions as a legitimate source for rewriting African American history, Stuckey followed a legacy championed in the last century by W. E. B. Du Bois, Sterling Brown, John Lovell, Howard Thurman, James Cone, and Eileen Southern, who wrote from varying disciplinary perspectives about the "Negro Spirituals" serving as a mirror into the heart and soul of Africans held in bondage in North America. This essay revisits the subject of the historic origin of selected Negro Spirituals, defined here as the improvised sacred songs of Christians enslaved in the United States from the perspective of 19th century sources of North American provenance. We know from the pioneering research of Eileen Southern that the Spirituals evolved as a new genre of sacred song among African Americans in the southern and northern regions of the United States around the turn of the 19th century. (3) According to John Watson, a European American elder and author of Methodist Error or Friendly Christian Advice to Those Methodists Who Indulge in Extravagant Religious Emotions and Bodily Exercises (1819), black Methodists in Pennsylvania improvised sacred songs derived from "short scraps of disjointed affirmations, pledges, or prayers, lengthened out with long repetition choruses," performing them in manner of the harvest frolic of slaves in the southern United States. (4)

From the perspective of American music, the Spirituals comprise the largest repertory of slave music to come down to us from the antebellum era, preserved largely through the efforts of northern missionaries, Union Army officers, educators, and folksong collectors who compiled and published them immediately after the Civil War. These Spirituals represented, in the words of W. E. B. Du Bois, the African American's most enduring gift to the world; through them the slave spoke to the world with simple, forthright elegance. (5)

In his autobiography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), Frederick Douglass recalled that slaves were expected to sing as they worked:

  A silent slave is not liked by masters or overseers. "Make a noise,"
  "make a noise," and "bear a hand," are the words usually addressed to
  the slaves when there is silence among them. This may account for the
  almost constant singing heard in the southern states. (6)

Southern slaveholders and overseers quickly discovered the benefit of having slaves sing while they worked: singing helped them keep track of lone slaves working in the fields; it served as a useful tool for pacing the rhythmic flow of activity among field workers; and it took the slave's mind off the monotony of repetitive work. Christian slaves, according to their narratives, preferred singing hymns or sacred songs of their own composition while working, rather than secular ditties and so-called "devil" or fiddle songs.

Within such a context Christian slaves created a repertory of sacred oral literature--the Spirituals--to serve a functional role in their society. (7) Such songs addressed a variety of needs in the slave community, reaching beyond the theology and spirituality of the enslaved into the innermost aspects of chattel slavery in the antebellum South, where black men, women, and children had little rights respected under the law. …