Let Freedom Sing!

By: Bailey Hollins

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The Secret Language of Negro Spirituals

Subsequent to being captured and sold into U.S. slavery, many Africans were separated from their families, stripped from their lifestyles, and deprived of their languages. Therefore, they were forced to innovate new forms of communication through various methods — one of the most traditional being hymns and negro spirituals. Africans were exposed to Christianity during their enslavement and used negro spirituals not only to express their new faith, but also as a secret code to relay messages about escaping and/or seeking freedom through the Underground Railroad. For instance, the negro spiritual “Wade in the Water” is entwined with coded lyrics used by slaves to instruct and  alert one another about their plans to escape without notifying the slave masters.

The Secret Language of Negro Spirituals

The Secret Language of Negro Spirituals

The lyrics, “Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water…” are a message among slaves to be cautious during their escape as slave masters would use bloodhounds to track runaway slaves. Therefore, they instructed one another to “wade in the water,” or in other words be prepared hide in a nearby body of water in order to disguise their scents.

Other Codes...

Negro spirituals were used to communicate other codes as well. For example, “The Gospel Train,” is encrypted with lyrics that are informing other slaved who plan to escape that the train to freedom is on its way or nearby. “Go Down Moses” is a popular negro spiritual that reflected the rampant slavery taking place in southern colonial states. The lyrics, “Oppressed so hard they could not stand/Let my people go!/So the God said: go down, Moses/Way down in Egypt land/Tell all pharos to let my people go!” acted as a call for abolitionist to take their good fight down South to free the slaves. 

Closing Remarks

Slaves used negro spirituals to keep their culture and bond strong with one another regardless of the barriers places between. The codes in their lyrics were an important key to them successfully escaping to freedom via the Underground Railroad and other secret paths. They used these spirituals to express faith, sorrow, joy, and so much more. 

Sources

Bailey Hollins

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Bailey Hollins

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