The singing of spirituals in North America in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries was inextricably connected to the ongoing struggle for freedom forged by women and men in the enslaved African community. The association between singing and freedom began early. When newly captured Africans were loaded like cattle into the holds of slave ships during the Middle Passage1 (the voyage from the west coast of Africa to the Americas), singing was one of the few protest tools they had at their disposal. In his book There is a River, historian Vincent Harding describes the fact that during the Middle Passage some Africans, resisting the very idea of being held captive against their will, decided to jump overboard into shark infested waters. As they dove to their deaths, Harding reports, these African women and men often sang “songs of triumph,” affirming the fact that – in addition to the feelings of despair that must have been prevalent among the captives – their suicides, punctuated by singing, served ultimately as acts of defiant protest and triumph.
There is no question that, above all else, the spirituals created and first sung by enslaved Africans after they arrived in North America figured prominently in the long struggle for freedom and dignity, a struggle that would continue through nearly 250 years of slavery, into the post-Civil War Reconstruction period2, through the twentieth century Jim Crow era3, into the 1960s Civil Rights Movement, and continuing to the present day. All along this long road to freedom, the singing of spirituals and songs inspired by spirituals would be a constant companion, ally and tool.
Consult the following resources to learn more about The Middle Passage:
Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) Africans in America website
Juneteenth Pictorial website, with introduction by historian John Henrik Clarke and illustrations by artist Tom Feelings
Tom Feelings, The Middle Passage: White Ships, Black Cargo, New York: Dial Books, 1995.
Consult the following resources to learn more about the short period of Reconstruction that began after the Civil War and lasted less than 15 years:
African American Registry website:
W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, New York: Atheneum, 1992
Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, New York: Harper & Row, 1990
Consult the following resources for more information about the Jim Crow era:
History of Jim Crow website
Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: PBS companion website
University of Virginia
C. Van Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow, New York: Oxford University Press, 1994