Negro Spirituals

In chapter 2, Douglass dismisses the misconception that a singing slave is necessarily a content and happy slave. According to Douglass, why do they sing these songs?

"I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake. Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears. At least, such is my experience. I have often sung to drown my sorrow, but seldom to express my happiness. Crying for joy, and singing for joy, were alike uncommon to me while in the jaws of slavery. The singing of a man cast away upon a desolate island might be as appropriately considered as evidence of contentment and happiness, as the singing of a slave; the songs of the one and of the other are prompted by the same emotion."

This type of song, a spiritual, is a specific genre that is unique. Slaves were unable to communicate freely and these songs were a way for them to communicate. Negro Spirituals were used to:

  • express sorrow at the condition of slavery
  • communicate knowledge--such a ways to escape
  • express religious devotion

These songs were not written down, but part of the oral tradition of the American slaves. Slave Songs of the United States was a collection of African American music published in 1867. It was the first, and most influential, collection of spirituals to be published. The collectors were Northern abolitionists, William Francis Allen, Lucy McKim Garrison and Charles Pickard Ware.

Watch and listen to this short video about African American Spirituals.
Last modified: Thursday, 14 June 2012, 4:20 PM