Menu

I’m Building Me a Home: Negro Spirituals and the Fostering of Self

negro-spiritual-2

The Negro Spiritual

“I’m buildin’ me a home
I’m buildin’ me a home
I’m buildin’ me a home
I’m buildin’ me a home
This earthly heart
Is gonna soon decay
And the soul’s gotta have, oh Lord, somewhere to stay

When you hear me prayin’
I’m buildin’ me a home
When you hear me prayin’
I’m buildin’ me a home
This earthly heart
Is gonna soon decay
And the soul’s gotta have, oh Lord, somewhere to stay,” 

– “I’m Building Me a Home” 

The Negro spiritual remains as one of the most primary and culturally-rich testaments to African-American achievements in music. The spiritual – a Christian song often sung to express the suffering experienced through slavery – was created by black Americans prior to, during, and after the enslavement of black folks in the United States. 

When asked about the enslaved man and the singing of Negro spirituals, Dr. James Norris, professor of music and director of the Howard University Choir, says, “He had to sing about his condition. He had to sing [to keep] his mellow bearings.” In this way, we can begin to see the Negro spiritual as a way for the enslaved and the descendants of slaves to foster a selfhood, to question one’s existence and destiny, and to challenge the justice (or lack thereof) in enslavement, all while forging a sanctified space and “home” between themselves and God. 

The black spiritual music that exists now – the “magic” you hear in the singer, drummer, or pianist that grew up in the black church – comes from generations and generations of a sacred and close proximity to the self and music, all beginning with the Negro spiritual. Within the Negro spiritual, one not only finds the blueprint to the black American’s relationship with God, but also a distinct musical style that is carried throughout the diaspora. 

- Characteristics of the Genre -

Within the Negro spiritual, there are a series of characteristics or elements that are indicative of the genre (some of which may be present in other African-American musical styles). Some of those elements can be found below. 

Religious Subtext

Spirituals exist as the earliest form of religious music created within the African-American community. Despite their musical difference from the hymns and/or psalms introduced to enslaved African-Americans by European missionaries, spirituals were still alike in their representation of various Christian values and stories from the bible. Civil War Commander of the Black Army, Colonel Thomas Wentworth Higginson, described the spirituals as “wild hymns” that wove the day-to-day experiences of his soldiers with “the depths of theological gloom.” Enslaved black folk often sang and created spirituals at nightly “praise meetings,” also referred to as the “invisible church,” or the sacred spaces where slaves went to worship in secret. Spiritual lyrics often allude to the notions of freedom and refuge being intrinsic to the spiritual self and are often directed to the Lord himself. 

Repeated Motifs + Call-Response

Within spirituals, one sees again the musical elements of call-and-response and repeated phrases or motifs being implemented. Call-response refers to a song structure in which one singer or instrumentalist will sing a lyric or musical phrase that is then answered by another individual or group of the same. The spiritual featured below, “Run, Mary, Run,” is actually to be sung in a call-and-response format. The calls and responses within a song can often overlap each other, creating a musical uproar of singing and sound. In addition, spirituals often repeat lyrics and their melodies. This repetition not only makes the spiritual easy to remember, but deepen the impact of the songs and the words themselves. 

Double-Entendres

Double-entendres refer to the “double meanings” that were often present in the lyrics of various Negro spirituals. Most alternative meanings to seemingly innocent or religious lyrics might reference how a slave might escape or rebel. For example, consider the lyrics to “Run, Mary, Run,” which allude to fleeing in protection of one’s life:

 

“Run Mary, run! Oh–

Tell Martha, run! Oh–

Tell Mary, run, I say!

You got a right to the tree of life.”

– “Run, Mary, Run” 

Questioning and Instruction

To continue on spirituals and their lyrical meaning, I have noticed that often spiritual lyrics seem to be guided by questioning – why is something happening, to whom and why is it happening, and so on. In response, the spirituals also seem to be governed by instruction – lyrics such as “hold on, hold on,” “keep your hand on the plow,” “no more weeping,” and “let my people go,” arise. 

- Performances of the Negro Spiritual -

University and College Groups

In 1871, Negro spirituals were introduced to the concert stage where they first gained wide recognition outside of the African-American community. The Fisk Jubilee Singers were a co-ed music group of students that helped to fund Fisk University through their traveling performances of Negro spirituals. Their group toured throughout many American cities, and by 1878, they had raised upwards of $150,000 for their institution. Their success inspired the creation of similar ensembles at other HBCUs. Today, Negro spirituals have reached the world stage with countless translations in other languages and performances in all parts of the globe. 

Harry T. Burleigh

1866 – 1949

Harry T. Burleigh, born on December 2, 1866, in Erie, Pennsylvania, was the first African-American to arrange the Negro spiritual as a solo performance. He was the soloist for St. George’s Episcopal Church in New York City, an all-white congregation. In 1916, he published Jubilee Songs of the U.S., which included what came to be his most well-known arrangement, “Deep River.” Burleigh is also credited with beginning the tradition of ending recitals with a performance of spirituals. 

Marian Anderson

1897 – 1993

Marian Anderson, one of the most accomplished singers of her time, is celebrated as the first black person to sing at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. Anderson was deeply involved in advocating for the rights of black Americans – she often fought to secure equal treatment as an African American singer, particularly when it came to performing in historically- white spaces or in front of integrated audiences. In 1939, Anderson performed a series of Negro spirituals at the Lincoln Memorial on Easter Sunday (shown in the adjacent clip) in front of a crowd of over 75,000 people – a historical moment for both Anderson and the black community. 

- Influences on Subsequent Musical Styles -

The elements and musicality that arise in the Negro spiritual have been transpired to many other forms of African-American music. Below is a video on just one of those genres – hip-hop – and the inspirations it has gleaned from the Negro spiritual. 

- Impact -

Today, the Negro spiritual remains as one of the most poignant and emotive expressions of African-American music. In its legacy lies the defining moments of our connection to ourselves and our plight, the possibilities or “spirit” of freedom, and an affirmation of our existence and ability to endure. The spirituals remain essential and committed to memory because of their connection to our past and our destiny. 

- Personal Reflection -

Personally, I found studying the Negro spiritual to be impactful and formative not only because of what it says about black music and black musicality, but what it asserts about our spirituality and selfhood as well. Through the Negro spiritual, black folk who were enslaved harnessed Christianity in such a way that allowed them to examine themselves and their circumstances. Because of this, I believe the spiritual existed – and continues to exist – as an invaluable form of self-endurance and a philosophical rendering of our enslavement.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email