Hidden Messages Within Negro Spirituals

Messages Within Negro Spirituals

Essential Questions

What role could/did music play in the lives of enslaved people?
In what ways did the MUSIC OF the ENSLAVED PEOPLE and Negro Spirituals communicate the basic facts of bondage?
What specific facts, messages and truths can be learned and understood from such music?
How well did art communicate truths in a way that more straight forward communication could not given their circumstance?

Brief History

Negro spirituals are songs created by the Africans who were captured and brought to the United States to be sold into slavery. This stolen race was deprived of their languages, families, and cultures; yet, their masters could not take away their music.

Over the years, these slaves and their descendants adopted Christianity, the religion of their masters.   They re-shaped it into a deeply personal way of dealing with the oppression of their enslavement. Their songs, which were to become known as spirituals, reflected the slaves’ need to express their new faith:

Coded Spirituals

Many of the well-known Negro Spirituals popular in the United States during the mid-1800s are much more complex than they first appear. Historians of the Underground Railroad refer to them as “Coded Spirituals”. What that means is that the words actually have two meanings; one that is immediately apparent and one that’s hidden just below the surface.

"Wade In The Water"

For Example“The secret code in ‘Wade in the water, God’s gonna trouble the water’ for the slaves trying to escape from slavery on the Underground Railroad, meant to be aware that one of the methods used by the slave masters to track runaway slaves down was to send their bloodhounds out to track down the slave,” Calvin Earl, an expert on the history of African American Spirituals, explained on his website.

“So the lyrics were instruction for the runaway slave. If they could hear the bloodhounds were close behind, they needed to find a body of water and wade in water because if you were in water, the bloodhounds could no longer pick up their scent and the slave would be safe from the dogs tracking them down,” he added.

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