Oh Freedom!: Spirituals as a Second Language


Negro spirituals have been prevalent since the time of their creation. In times of enslavement, enslaved Africans were exposed to  Christianity. 

Many people believe that the journey during the transatlantic trade washed away all African cultural practices. While many things were stripped from these individuals through chattel enslavement, some still remained. 

The way enslaved Africans worshipped and praised was rooted in homeland culture, therefore different in the eyes of white people. Negro spiritual practices were misunderstood, and shamed by some white people. 

Enslaved people were not permitted to worship with the rest of the congregation. Separated from the others, they would engage in the spirituals in a way that white people had never seen or heard, and often couldn’t replicate. 

This led to mistranslations concerning the manner in which negro spirituals were sung. For example, when enslaved people would sing in sorrow, it could be misinterpreted as happiness.

Like a foreign language, negro spirituals served as just one of the ways for black people to communicate without being noticed. Spirituals played a significant role in the Underground Railroad.

 Lyrics to these songs would serve as coded instructions, or the singing itself would serve as a signal. For example, people like Harriet Tubman were known to use spirituals to identify and send messages to escapees. A person who was planning to escape would sing a song like “Steal Away”, which is about the singer going to Jesus.

Although negro spirituals were a famously known way to communicate back in times of enslavement, this is not the only period that black people conversed through spirituals. Protestors during the Civil Rights Movement sung songs such as “We Shall Overcome” to express themselves during said protests.

Black people have seemingly always used music to communicate. Negro spirituals served as another language. This language seemed exclusive, in a sense that no one else would be able to truly experience the underlying feeling in their expressions. Without the use of negro spirituals–or music as a whole–the way Black history is told would most likely be entirely different.


Spiritual Workshop. “History Official Site of Negro Spirituals, Antique Gospel Music.” History Official Site of Negro Spirituals, www.negrospirituals.com/history.htm. Accessed 21 Feb. 2021.


“Songs of the Underground Railroad : Harriet Tubman.” Songs of the Underground Railroad: Harriet Tubman, www.harriet-tubman.org/songs-of-the-underground-railroad. Accessed 21 Feb. 2021.


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