Negro Spirituals:

Define: The songs which were sung by the black slaves in the United States in the 18th and 19th century. This is because Black slaves turned to religion as a way to cope with the pain of slavery. Each song is unique to the type of message it is sending whether the message is about controlling emotions or escaping to the North.

The Development of Negro Spirituals:

Music was a way of communication for slaves to express their emotions whether that was happiness, sadness, joy and/or heartache. It was a way to articulate the suffering of those that fell victim to slavery and the cruel and inhumane behavior that came with it. Songs were passed down generation to generation as a way to tell their history but also a way of communication throughout slavery. Religious hymns, work songs, along with traditional African rhythms and chanting styles all contributed to the development of what is known as the negro spiritual.

Famous Negro Spirituals Songs & Meaning:

Amazing Grace: Written in 1772 and published in 1779 the hymn is written by John Newton. The meaning of the song is about forgiveness and redemption of sins that a person has committed. It is also about the soul being able to be delivered by the mercy of God,

Wade in the Water: Written by Ramsey Lewis and then published and sang in 1901 by John Wesley Work ||, his brother and the Jubilee Singers. The meaning of the song was believed to be a secret communication method for slaves to share when they were trying to escape to freedom. “Wade in the Water” let them know to stay in or close to water so that dogs could lose their trial.

Go Down Moses: Written by slaves in the 1800s (unknown till this day specific names) and published in the autobiography of Harriet Tubman by Sarah Bradford. The meaning of the song was used by Harriet Tubman to signal to slaves when she was in the area for those who wanted help escaping. Her call and response was a beacon for slaves of hope and savior that one day they could be free.

Lift Every Voice and Sing: Written by James Weldon Johnson as a poem and then later turned into a song by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1899. The meaning of the song was a call to action that honors African American life and culture. It also speaks on the suffering and pain endured by all those effected negatively through slavery, segregation, the disregard of identity in The United States.

Negro Spiritual Writers:

  • Odetta Holmes
  • Thomas A. Dorsey
  • Charles Albert T.
  • Wallace Willis
  • Sam Lucas 
  • James A. Bland
  • Sister Rosetta
  • Big Bill Broonzy

The Lasting Impact of Negro Spirituals:

Negro Spirituals are not just words, they are emotions, beliefs, history, pain, lessons and culture. The Black Community to this day still rely on the strength and power that each stanza holds, they are the embodiment of African American history. Music played a vital part in the survival of African American men, women, and children through the emotions they felt at the time whether that was happy, sad or angry. Negro spirituals still made an impact to this day because they are the foundation of many genres such as American folk music, rock, pop and gospel.

Personal Statement ~ Jahsean Nash-Fuller

I looked up the definition of a Negro Spiritual and the importance of them and the impact they had on the community but I want to speak on the impact they have on me. For years, I have heard that we need to respect negro spirituals and their meaning but it wasn’t until this year that I started to understand the strength and grace that negro spirituals have on people. They aren’t just words or lyrics thrown together to rhyme, they are stories, hardships, secrets, and tools that where passed down generation to generation. These songs are our great great great great grandmother and grandfathers words they used to help each other get through an unimaginable and inhumane time in their lives. Many things during slavery were horrible but African Americans yet again made the impossible, possible by creating a whole new genre of music through the various emotions they felt. 

Take A Listen:
~ The beautiful thing about Negro Spirituals is that there is NO right way to sing them, the only can be sang based on the emotion and spin you put on it as individuals. ~

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