By Ta'Niyah Armstrong and Kaitlin Britton Wheeler

According to the Library of Congress, Negro Spirituals are defined as “a type of religious folksong that is most closely associated with the enslavement of African people in the American South.” 

The Secrets That Saved Us

Prior to the Transatlantic Slave Trade’s mass displacement  & enslavement of African people, we would gather as a community for festivals, ceremonies, and various other traditional events and the focal point of those gatherings would always be music. It would only make sense that we carried on those traditions with us across the ocean. Combining this tradition of musicality and our newfound acceptance of the Christian religion, negro spirituals kept us occupied during work, in our small gatherings, and most importantly it helped us to form escape plans.

Songs were used as a way to convey information about the route North because reading and writing among slaves was prohibited.

Our ancestors tapped into our cultural tradition of musicality and used that to the advantage to formulate escape plans right under the noses of the plantation owners. 

One of the most famous examples of secret languages in negro spirituals comes in the song, “Wade in the Water”.  On the surface, this song seems like a call out to the Lord and a message about enduring struggle, but there is so much more to decode.


Wade in the Water, wade in the water children.
Wade in the Water. God’s gonna trouble the water.

Hidden Meaning

Don’t walk on the roads, make your escape by walking through the water so you’re harder to spot and so your scent can’t be traced.

Who are those children all dressed in Red?
God’s gonna trouble the water.
Must be the ones that Moses led.
God’s gonna trouble the water.

‘Moses’ was Harriet’s ‘code name’ so if the song spoke of someone named Moses slaves would know that Harriet Tubman was involved or would be assisting them through their journey


Swing Low,


Sweet Chariot

Hidden Meaning

Come down to the South (slaveholding states),

The Underground Railroad

Comin’ for to carry me home

Coming to rescue me/help me escape to freedom in the North



When the sun comes back





Follow the drinking gourd 

Hidden Meaning

References the beginning of spring, when the days were longer–this was the best time to set out for the North



Follow the “Big Dipper” constellation

Much like negro spirituals, modern-day African American music utilizes lyrical illusion to hide or disguise messages. Similarly, during slavery negro spirituals were perceived by white Americans incorrectly African American music specifically hip hop and rap are regularly criticized by eyes and ears that were never meant to understand the songs originally.

Not to mention the added help of visual music videos to help add to the interpretation of hidden meaning at face value.

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