The spirituals were created by the slaves as a way to have a one on one conversation with God. As human beings we all need a way to find comfort, and a way to feel that our lives matter, the slaves were no different. No one wants to be invisible and unappreciated. The fact is, their lives of servitude were paramount to the survival of a new nation, without their labor, the founding fathers wouldn’t have the financial means to put forth their bold agenda for our fledgling nation. However, in real time for the human beings labeled slaves, their value was limited to their labor, and their worth as fellow human beings was obliterated by the social strategy to consider the slaves only 3/5th’s human. The slaves had no voice, they were not allowed to keep their African culture, not allowed to use their sacred drums to create music as they had done for thousands of years in Africa because their new masters knew they were able to communicate with the drums, so it was strictly forbidden. The slaves were taught Christianity and they actually related to the stories in the Bible with Moses leading his people to freedom. They clearly understood that there was a force we call God far greater than themselves, so they reached out to God in these songs for comfort, justice and unconditional love their souls knew belonged to them in spite of the self image they were taught to believe about themselves.
As the Christian Franciscan priest – Fr. Richard Rohr states: “By contemplation we mean the deliberate seeking of God through a willingness to detach from the passing self, the tyranny of emotions, the addiction to self-image, and the false promises of this world. It is a journey into faith and nothingness. The ordinary rules of thinking, managing, explaining and fixing up the self do not apply here. It is a search for God, a love of the larger Truth, and not the mere manipulation of ideas and feelings inside the private self. Contemplation is the “divine therapy” and the perennial clearinghouse for the soul. All the great world religions recognize it’s necessity in their more mature stages. For Christians, it is Jesus’ sojourn in the desert for forty days and Mary’s Let it be done unto me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38).
For the slaves, the spirituals were “divine therapy” and “the perennial clearinghouse for their souls.” Make no mistake, the spirituals were a path to freedom for the slaves. And as they sung to God through a moan and groan, the cry was so deep God heard, and His comfort gave the slaves strength, courage and the grace to go on in the fight to free themselves from the label of being called a slave not only for themselves but for generations of their children not yet born.
Peace and love all around. Calvin
Jean E. Snyder, Ph.D.
I’m so glad to have learned of your blog and your important work on the spirituals. You may be interested in my recently published biography, HARRY T. BURLEIGH: FROM THE SPIRITUALS TO THE HARLEM RENAISSANCE. I’d be grateful for your feedback. Keep up the important work!