The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech

By Ferris, William | The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography, January 1, 2007 | Go to article overview

The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech


Ferris, William, The Virginia Magazine of History and Biography


The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech * Shane White and Graham White * Boston: Beacon Press, 2005 * xxii, 241 pp., plus CD * $29.95

Ralph Ellison's comment that blacks are a people of the word rather than the book could serve as a preamble to The Sounds of Slavery: Discovering African American History through Songs, Sermons, and Speech. This fine study by Shane White and Graham White (not related) demonstrates how our understanding of black history is enriched by such primary documents as twentieth-century interviews with ex-slaves, field-recorded musical performances, and by nineteenth-century accounts written by whites and ex-slaves. Drawing on these sources, the Whites explore slavery through the lens of sounds that range from spirituals and work chants to the "anguished cries of families whose members were sold away; the repetitive crack of the master's or overseer's whip" (p. 3). Throughout their study, Shane and Graham White never lose sight of the violence and fear that haunted slaves at every step of their lives.

Frederick Douglass encouraged white audiences to overcome the "apparently incoherent" sounds of slave music and to understand their "deep meanings." He argued that the "wild notes" and "tones, loud, long and deep" of the singers represented "a testimony against slavery, and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains" (p. xix). Shane and Graham White argue that slave sounds were misunderstood by nineteenthcentury white writers, who ranged from sympathetic northern abolitionists to racist southern slave owners. All, however, were drawn to slave sounds, and all were transformed by their power.

From the time he awoke until he fell asleep, a slave's every hour was marked by sounds. Ex-slave Dave Walker explained that, "We wuz trained to live by signals of a ole cow horn. Us knowed whut each blow meant. All through de day de oie horn wuz blowed, to git up in de mo'nings, to go to de big kitchen out in Mars' back yard ter eat, to go to fields, an' to come in an' on lak dat all day" (p. 7).

Within this world, a slave could measure distance by the sound of a field holler. Frederick Law Olmsted heard field hollers during his travel in South Carolina and described them as "Negro jodling" (p. 20). An Alabama ex-slave remembered how these calls could be heard from the time wagons left his plantation until they "got outer hearing" and had traveled "about a holler and a half" (p.

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