How Negro Spirituals Influenced the Black Church
By: Gabrielle Weeden
What Are Negro Spirituals
Enslaved people who were kidnapped from their homeland and transported to the United States lost their languages, traditions, and friends, but they couldn’t lose their music. They developed oral traditions for a variety of reasons, including survival during the hardships of slavery, as well as storytelling and the incorporation of their values. The enslaved Africans would get together informally to sing, dance, and particularly do the “ring shout.” This type of music that the enslaved people shared, was called spirituals. Spirituals were a form of religious music that featured clapping and dancing in a call and answer pattern. This music was common among slaves to communicate their desire to be free and return to their homelands. To pass time and to communicate with one another, the enslaved people would sing spirituals that were often focused on real-life events and the various experiences that many slaves had. Spirituals were used by notable historical figures such as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass on their journeys to independence. Examples of some of the most popular negro spirituals are included below:
How Spirituals Were Utilized
The enslaved people used negro spirituals as one of the ways to connect without being heard. Spirituals were very important on the Underground Railroad. These songs’ lyrics would function as coded instructions, or the singing itself would function as a signal. Spirituals were used by people like Harriet Tubman to track down and communicate with fugitives. For example, if an enslaved person were fleeing, they would sing a song like “Steal Away,” which tells of the singer going to Jesus. Spirituals sung by African Americans acted as a second language. This language seemed exclusive, as if no one else could fully understand the underlying emotion in their expressions. The way Black history is told would almost certainly be different if negro spirituals–or music in general–were not used.
Negro Spirituals And The Black Church
Over time, Negro Spirituals developed into Gospel music. Spirituals are still sung today, but they have been modernized, and they’re the basis for the gospel music we hear in churches today. Without the Negro Spirituals, there would be no Black church. Having grown up in church my entire life, I did not realize until this class that the music that I had been singing my entire life, was influenced by negro spirituals. Even though Gospel music is constantly shifting and evolving to meet the standards of the world today, you can still hear the call and response technique that was created during the negro spiritual era.