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 African slaves first arriving in the Colonies in 1619 introducing slavery to America until 1865 when slavery ended and became illegal in this country. The true essence of any spiritual is the secret inner most desire of a slave trying to tell his or her story. The spirituals became the vessel in which the slave could express their feelings yet remain invisible from detection during a that time the slaves were not allowed to have a voice.
W.E. B. DeBois 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.”
My mission in life is to change that part in his description that describes the spirituals as neglected, half despised and above all mistaken and misunderstood. For me, in order to fully understand their original multidimensional music I needed to know more about my ancestors who created this inspiring music. What I found was fascinating and inspirational.
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. They are 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 famed 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.
What ever you choose to call their music, it was created to not only keep a record of their history as slaves in America, but also to heal their pain, and teach their young about: the new culture they were creating using new methods and new ideals.They also embedded a deep personal commitment to obtaining freedom for themselves and their children within this newly created music. And amazingly this music served to keep their life stories hidden in plain view for centuries, obviously, their lives depended on it. In fact the black spirituals are not only the beginning of our African American cultural heritage, they are its core foundation.
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 was 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. They are adaptations of the song the slaves sang— the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are as inspired by their words. “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom” is a sentence that needs no music to make its point. 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.” … “I have stood in a meeting with hundreds of youngsters and joined in while they sang, “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘Round.” It is not just a song; it is a resolve. A few minutes later, I have seen those same youngsters refuse to turn around from the onrush of a police dog, refuse to turn around before a pugnacious Bull Conner in command of men armed with power hoses. These songs bind us together, give us courage together, help us march together.”–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
Today we are standing on the blood spilt by our ancestors, not with gratitude but complacency. For me personally, I can no longer tolerate my ancestors amazing story not being told. 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 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 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. It is sad commentary to have to mention that neither the national or the black media thought this historic legislation was important enough to cover even in Black History Month. The truth is we can’t change history, but it is our choice to include our accomplishments rather than allow pity, shame and blame to distort the facts of history. We have to be responsible enough to take action for those who did not have a voice. In the name of freedom and truth we must include the contributions and the perspective of the slaves in our history books. We all need to know about the African American heroes within our history, beginning with, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman whose own stories helped shape the course of a nation in spite of their enslavement.
Perhaps you might watch and share this video with your friends. It’s history in the making. One person can make a difference with a little help from their friends! Pass it on……