‘I Shall Not Be Moved’ reveals the heart and soul of the African American Spirituals. As human beings one of the most powerful emotions we have is our deep-rooted yearning to have our voice heard and acknowledged. It was no different for the enslaved Africans first arriving in the Colonies in 1619 which introduced slavery to the New World. Slavery soon thereafter became legally accepted in the Colonies until 1865 when slavery was ended.
First and foremost, a spiritual created and sung by a slave was his or her secret inner most thoughts and desires in a hidden in plain view conversation with God. The spirituals were their vessel in which they could express their feelings yet remain invisible from detection during a time the enslaved Africans were not allowed to have a voice. And a spiritual was the enslaved African’s way of having a private, yet communal conversation with God all at the same time. I say communal, because as the slaves worked and sang together in the fields, each individual was telling their story out loud, they were ‘touching and agreeing’ as church folk would say. Or as musicologists refer to it as the ‘call and response’ method of singing. The spirituals also kept a record of their quest & strategies on the UGRR to obtain freedom for those who understood.
W. E. B. Du Bois description of the spirituals, I believe is really the most accurate. He stated in his book The Souls of Black Folk, “And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—-the rhythmic cry of the slave–stands today not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.”
In my view, the spirituals both describe and transcend the American experience and are widely recognized as part of our American culture. As America became a new nation, these songs represented the human spirit. These songs represent portraits of courage, reflected in blood, sweat and tears in all that was intended for a fledgling nation whose motto was “the land of the free”. The spirituals document the joyful moments of our success. The awful loneliness of our failure. The gaping distance between the American dream and the American reality. These songs encompass the gut wrenching universal cry for freedom all humanity seeks. Pure. Raw. Unfiltered.
To put it in perspective and in the context of our history, back in 1895 the Bohemian Composer, Antonin Dvorak while working in America wrote and published an article regarding his observations of music & arts in America. He stated: “A while ago I suggested that inspiration for truly national music might be derived from the Negro melodies or Indian chants. I was led to take this view partly by the fact that the so-called plantation songs are indeed the most striking and appealing melodies that have yet been found on this side of the water, but largely by the observation that this seems to be recognized, though often unconsciously, by most Americans. All races have their distinctively national songs, which they at once recognize as their own, even if they have never heard them before.”
Throughout American history, the spirituals have captured the hearts of people around the world. The spirituals are both comforting & courage building while capturing the vibrant essence and beauty of our common humanity. What inspires me most is the slaves created this magnificent music in the midst of their own personal, unacknowledged despair. Their music was their voice. Their message was and still is a wakeup call to humanity to find the gumption, fortitude and wisdom to truly believe that all men are created equal and that life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness belongs to all of us. Their legacy and their gifts to the world beginning with their original music became the foundation and inspiration for most all American music genres, making American music the most popular music in the world. Against all odds, they built a lasting legacy in spite of their circumstances.
In the 1950’s and 1960’s during the Civil Rights Movement, the spirituals played another important role in our history. Dr. King said: “An important part of the mass meetings were the freedom songs. In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America…..We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that “ We shall overcome, black and white together, We shall overcome someday….These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us march together.”–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
The accomplishments and contributions of our enslaved population in America needs to be acknowledged and embraced by all of us. A one sided view of history leads us to live in fear and creates stigmas that continue today in the form of racism to keep our nation divided unnecessarily. That is why I took it upon myself to create and present legislation to the United States Congress to honor the slaves for their contributions and gifts to our nation. And in fact, I was successful in securing a unanimous vote in both the House of Representatives and the US Senate to officially recognize and honor the former enslaved Africans in the United States for their contributions and gifts to our Nation with our deepest gratitude and respect and recognizing the African American spiritual as a national treasure. This historic legislation passed in February 2007.
The truth is we can’t change history. We have to be responsible enough to take action for those who did not have a voice. In the name of truth we must include the contributions and the perspective of the enslaved Africans in our history books. We all need to know about the African American experience and the heroes within our history, including Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman whose own stories helped shape the course of a nation in spite of their enslavement. For me, I see the beauty and talent of the people who created the spirituals and their amazing original sound. The spirituals don’t need to be changed, watered down to fit a musical scale, or serve the purpose of something other than what they were designed to do in the first place. I hear the voices of my ancestors, with humility and gratitude and I am grateful and honored to acknowledge their contribution for without them there would be no me.
Now the question is are we willing to set the record straight in our history books to include and reflect all our diverse cultural contributions within the founding of this nation? The truth is we all want a peaceful thriving nation. So let’s get this done! Like a tree planted by the water, I shall not be moved. Whose with me?