African American Spirituals: Ring Shouts

The ring shout played a large role in bringing enslaved people together in the South.

A spiritual is a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South. Specifically, spirituals also stem from the "ring shout," a shuffling circular dance to chanting and hand-clapping that was common among early plantation slaves. It is a religious tradition considered to be a form of worship as participants move counterclockwise while they join together and dance and sing which would bring communities together in the form of music.

The first written account of ring shouts date back to the 1840s. It was a form of music that helped cultivate communities of enslaved Africans. Many spoke different languages and ring shouts brought together people from different African regions including parts of those in the African Diaspora. Original ring shouts brought together multiple cultures and traditions serving was a symbol of connection and freedom.

The ring shout was Christianized and practiced in some African American churches in the 20th century, and it continues to the present among the Gullah people of the Sea Islands. Along with gospel churches in the United States, it can now be found in different communities such as, Trinidad, Jamaica, Barbados, and more. Some refer to this dance as an African Diaspora dance since it was established outside of Africa by those of the African descent.

To show an example of ring shout and how it is used today, shown in the video to the left, Ring Shouters gather to explain the meaning behind the hymn "Two Wings" and why it is sung. It represents a West African tribe freeing themselves from slavery. When the tribe reaches a new, foreign land, they join together and drown themselves. The hymn is now sung as a ring shout as a dedication to the bravery of the West African tribe. When the ring shouters perform, they dance in a circular motion while singing. The audience around them joins in to sing along, handclap, and cheer them on.