What are Negro Spirituals?

A Negro spiritual is a religious song of a kind associated with black Christians of southern U.S and thought to derive from the combination of European hymns and African musical elements by black slaves. Negro spirituals served as a way for African slaves to cope with their daily trauma and laborious work. Historically, slaves were not permitted to meet and sing, as it was prohibited by their slave-owners. However they were allowed to go to church, where hymns were sung, and they were influenced by Christianity.

Purpose of Negro Spirituals

Not only did negro spirituals helped get slaves through their rough times, but the songs had symbolic meanings and messages they slave owners could not figure out. For instance, songs like  “Wade in the Water”, “The Gospel Train”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”, all had secretive meanings that involved slaves using the Underground Railroad to escape. The songs were significant, due to the fact that the process of escaping included slaves walking in the water at night to disguise the smell of their tracks; and using chariots where they could hide and ride away.

Although slave-owners prohibited a public congregation, slaves would have religious meetings in the forests at night, to discuss their oppressive state, their pains, and also find happiness through these meetings. At church, the biblical reference to slaves being set free was a form of encouragement and inspired these slaves to meet and also discuss their path to freedom. In order to disguise their plan to congregate, they used negro spirituals, such as “Steal Away” to notify other slaves that there would be a meeting happening that night.

Popular Negro Spirituals

Personal Feelings

We believe that Negro Spirituals were a way for black slaves to cope with their oppressive state. When listening to this specific genre of music we feel the agony, pain, and sorrow that the slaves endured. It also showed how optimistic the slaves were during such hard times. After enduring such cruel and harsh treatment from slave masters, they were still able to sing about the future freedom that they believed they could attain. It’s interesting to also see the biblical reference tied to these songs. When we listen to “ Go Down, Moses”, we think of the story of Moses and the people of Israel in the bible. It shows how the oppressive beings would later be freed, through persistence and faith in God. Listening to this genre of music in the present day tells us how much we have overcome as Black people, but also reminds us of the oppression that can often be repeated in today’s society.