Are you really hearing me?:Unveiling the Double Entendre in Negro Spirituals

by: Angel Milton

Double Entendre? What's That?

The term “Double Entendre” is derived from the French language, translated word for word meaning “double message.” Although “Double Entendre” isn’t used in the French language, the real translation is “Double sens, double signification, double message.” In the negro spirituals, this technique of messaging was used to their advantage; it was a way for them to communicate to one another while working.

Biblical Allusions

The folk spiritual “Go Down Moses” is well known for its use of biblical allegory and allusion. This song makes reference to a fundamental part of the Old Testament, Exodus 7:16: “And the Lord spoke unto Moses, go unto Pharaoh, and say unto him, thus saith the Lord, Let my people go, that they may serve me” (Exodus 7:16) In context, this was in connection to the freeing of slaves in Egypt. We find these biblical references many times as we see that the slaves would apply scripture to their current situations. The Israelites were a representation of the slaves, the masters as pharaoh, and Egypt as the south. This served as an image for change as well as freedom.

~Lyrics to “Go Down Moses” an American spiritual~


Code Messaging

Not only was this a form of communication but it was their way of speaking in code. “Follow the drinking gourd” didn’t really mean its literal message. The drinking gourd   symbolized the constellation “Big Dipper” which appeared at night and was used as a point of reference for the slaves so that they wouldn’t get lost while voyaging the Underground Railroad. The irony in this form of communication is that no one but the slaves would understand the true meaning of such songs. They’d sing while the slave masters would be nearby, yet the masters wouldn’t understand a thing. 


Negro Spirituals have been passed down through generations and it’s important for individuals, especially black people, to become familiar with them as they remind us of what we should be grateful for and how long we’ve come. They should be a constant reminder to keep going and to never give up. The meanings and messages are concepts that we should comprehend as they served as a form of communication between the slaves. 

Can you figure out the 'Double Entendre' in these 3 pieces?

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