Literacy, History, and African American Spirituals

Members of a Pentecostal church praising the Lord in Chicago, 1941 (Library of Congress).

In his 1935 interview with Alan Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Quarterman, a ninety-one-year-old formerly enslaved man, shared a spiritual that expressed the discursive realities of enslavement. Legally denied literacy, African Americans developed a dynamic oral discourse through both slave songs and the performance of orality.

Collectively, African American spirituals privilege the “voice of the unwritten self” as an authentic voice of enslaved African Americans who were denied the ability to write down and thereby preserve their thoughts in physical documents. As a subjective discourse that existed outside of writing, African American spirituals were much more than an outlet for intense emotions. These spirituals challenged prevailing interpretations of the Bible and enslavers’ portrayal of spirituals as undignified and unimportant.1

Fixed to an indefinite status of servitude, the enslaved were inculcated with Paul the Apostle’s instructions that “slaves be obedient to those who are your masters” in Ephesians Chapter 6:5. Enslaved Africans who converted to Christianity questioned this interpretation of Scripture, which supported slavery and inequality before God. Slave preachers like Nat Turner reminded the enslaved that God was not aloof in their everyday existence, that He was a God of justice and power. Nat Turner’s prophetic leadership stemmed from his adoption of evangelical rhetoric. He rejected the institutional framework of the church community and white paternal oversight. Turner even converted the white plantation overseer Etheldred T. Brantley who was “baptized by the Spirit,” while the white church that had rejected and “reviled” Brantley looked on. Turner’s recollection of this event suggests he held pride in his spiritual authority to overcome racial boundaries and institutional limitations. Slave preachers like Nat Turner also understood that the Bible spoke to the underside of history: the poor Israelites over and against the wealthy landlords; the small colonized nation opposed to the great empires of antiquity; the slave, the freeman, and provincial classes versus the mighty empire of Rome. It was a God who took the sides of the victims of history, rather than one who simply established the existing social order.

If one views the Old and New Testaments as social history, the enslaved, the poor, and the oppressed are at the center of biblical thought as well as spiritual and social activity. From this vantage point, the enslaved understood that God supported the subalterns of history and did not hold the status quo sacred. It is in this context that slave spirituals can be conceived as narratives with complex dialectical structures that speak to the “affliction of the righteous” and reveal human agency. African American spirituals not only appropriated the tools of the enslaver’s language to resist slavery, but also relied upon African American folk culture to critique the Southern slave system. Spirituals challenged a system of power by speaking with the authority of Christian righteousness to call attention to slavery’s shameful and dehumanizing conduct in the eyes of God. Breaking out of the paradigm of oppression to become the symbol of wisdom, struggle, resistance, and faith, these songs embrace the idea that the oppressed are central to the Christian mission and their intellectual creations can also serve as texts to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The spiritual “My God Is A Rock In A Weary Land” is illustrative of this dialectical structure. As a narrative, this spiritual is individuated and serves as a site of memory and subjectivity. This spiritual suggests that this narrative represents a mode of sophisticated expression, which constructed a conscious notion of the self and of the community in which God served as a refuge for the brokenhearted captives who suffered oppression. The creation of spirituals thus served as an act of cultural agency rather than cultural containment, embodying a powerful version of the “doublespeak” that Henry Louis Gates discussed in The Signifying Monkey. This “doublespeak” does not depend upon linguistic and rhetorical double meaning, but upon a discourse of sound and tone that can simultaneously critique linguistic meaning and act separate from it. It is in this context that the spiritual, “My God Is A Rock in A Weary Land,” achieves salience.

Regional demographics and linguistic development provide insight into the development of spirituals. At the time of the 1800 census, ninety percent of the African American population was concentrated in the southeastern region of the United States. According to scholar Felicia Barber, three major languages and/or dialects were commonly spoken among African Americans: 1) Louisiana Creole; 2) Gullah/Geechee languages; and 3) African American English (AAE) dialect. These three languages/dialects appear in published African American spirituals such as Slave Songs of the United States (1867), the earliest publication of spirituals. A majority of the songs collected in Slave Songs of the United States were written using AAE dialect, while seven songs utilize Louisiana Creole, and three reflect Gullah/Geechee language.

The essays of James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938) have been a key resource for the performance of spirituals.  As an author, journalist, poet, educator, songwriter, lawyer, politician, and early civil rights leader, Johnson’s interpretations of African American spiritual traditions have served to aid performers, arrangers, and educators over the past century. Johnson’s essays addressed many musical considerations, including spiritual types, swing, harmony or unison, melody, feeling, rhythm, and interpretation. His treatise on spirituals appeared in the prefaces of books, most notably The Books of American Negro Spirituals (1925).  In The Books of American Negro Spirituals, Johnson adroitly delineates the origin, artistic character, and historical significance of the spirituals.

Spirituals are what W.E.B. Du Bois called “sorrow songs” that force people into the spirit and flesh of oral expression. In The Souls of Black Folk, Du Bois poses two incisive questions:

Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope—a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometimes, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?

Du Bois was also cognizant of the fact that the sorrow songs were not merely passive anthems expressing the “assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond.” Rather, they might also embody moments of urgency in the present. Although sacred, the lyrics of these sorrow songs were nonetheless political, coded with an astute awareness of the temporal struggle for survival, the need for protest, and the expectation of injustice redressed.

For the enslaved, the misery of their captivity was balanced not only against the promise of a just world beyond this one, but also of justice in this world. These dual beliefs found expression in spirituals, which responded directly to the many sorrows of slavery and did so within the framework of Christian faith. Perhaps the verses of “Mary Don’t You Weep” best encapsulate the resistance embedded in this sacred discourse.

Mary, don’t you weep and Martha don’t you moan

Mary, don’t you weep and Martha don’t you moan;

Pharaoh’s army got drown-ed.

Oh Mary don’t you weep.

I think every day and I wish I could,

Stand on the rock where Moses stood.

Oh, Pharaoh’s army got drown-ed.

Oh, Mary don’t you weep.

  1. Interview with Wallace Quarterman, Fort Frederica, St. Simons Island, Georgia, June 1935, “Voices from the Days of Slavery,” American Folk Life Society (AFS)t0341A, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.
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Karen Cook Bell

Karen Cook Bell is the Wilson H. Elkins Endowed Professor of History at Bowie State University. She is the author of Claiming Freedom: Race, Kinship, and Land in Nineteenth Century Georgia (University of South Carolina Press, 2018); Running From Bondage: Enslaved Women and Their Remarkable Fight for Freedom in Revolutionary America (Cambridge University Press, 2021) and Southern Black Women and Their Struggle for Freedom during the Civil War and Reconstruction (Cambridge University Press, 2023). She is Founding Director of the BSU Du Bois Center for the Study of the Black Experience at Bowie State University. Follow her on Twitter at @kbphd08 and at the BSU Du Bois Cenetr @BSUDuBoisCenter

Comments on “Literacy, History, and African American Spirituals

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    This is a wonderful piece!

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      Thank you!

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    Great piece of educational writing.

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    The “Spirituals” were also veiled escape songs, indicating both a
    yearning to escape and sending messages of escape plans.

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