The Bible in Song: Reclaiming African American Spirituals
Wade in the water
Wade in the water children
Wade in the water
God’s a-gonna trouble the water
African American spirituals have long had special meaning in my personal and professional life. My awareness of their significance, however, came relatively late. I did not gain a full appreciation of the spirituals or my African American Christian heritage until I joined a black church in my late teens.
Yet my introduction to the African American spirituals came to stand at the very heart of this cultural and spiritual awakening for me. As I began to sing these songs, deeply rooted in both the Bible and the tragedy of slavery, I came to understand their profound meaning. It is no exaggeration to say that through the spirituals I learned to appreciate the dramatic history and depths of the African American religious experience.
As I pursued my career as a Christian educator, first as a director of Christian education in the local church and later as a professor in the academy, the spirituals became one of my most valuable resources for teaching both the biblical text and the African American Christian experience. Unfortunately, I discovered that many African American churches, having uncritically adopted Eurocentric educational paradigms, curriculum materials, and modes of worship, have abandoned the use of the spirituals. Consequently, these churches are in danger of losing the spirituals not only as an embodiment of their heritage but also as a valuable tool for Christian education.
The spirituals embody the faith and heritage of a people who have encountered the dehumanizing effects of slavery and racism. Enslaved for nearly three hundred years, the collective creators of these songs sang about the suffering they endured: “Nobody knows the trouble I see, nobody knows my sorrow; nobody knows the trouble I see, Glory, Hallelujah!”
Despite the overwhelming despair, they never lost sight of their faith. As preservers of this dynamic faith and heritage, the spirituals helped sustain the enslaved community. They served not only as a means of education and worship. They gave the community a way to express its deepest aspirations for freedom and social change. As a form of covert communication in the resistance struggle for liberation, the spirituals often signaled impending escapes or secret gatherings. Although the spirituals recount the brutal realities of slavery, they simultaneously reflect an enduring legacy of hope, resilience, survival, and unwavering faith.1
Though various sources have influenced the spirituals, I have long been intrigued by how the Bible functioned in song within the enslaved community. As E. Franklin Frazier notes, “The Bible provided the Negro with the rich imagery which has characterized … the sacred folk songs” of African Americans.2 Selected biblical stories and images, forming a distinct “slave canon” that drew heavily upon the Old Testament, provided a unique theological and hermeneutical foundation, whereby the enslaved community read the Bible in light of their particular experience. More specifically, as enslaved Africans looked to the Bible, they identified with the plight of the Hebrew children of God and appropriated their story of bondage and liberation.3
To a lesser extent, the New Testament also played a role in the spirituals, emphasizing the life and death of Jesus Christ. Since the enslaved community identified more intensely with the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus, the stories of Jesus’ birth are not as prominent in the spirituals.
Though the biblical message as embodied in the spirituals took on great meaning during the antebellum period, I believe that the Bible in song can continue to have meaning and influence in our society and in our churches even today.
Embodied in spirituals, the Bible can serve as a source of education that embraces, for instance, the value of the oral tradition. Certainly, the oral tradition was central to the education system of the enslaved community. Enslaved Africans, prohibited from learning to read and write, passed on valuable life lessons from the Scriptures and other wisdom sources through the spirituals. Slaves learned these lessons in the fields as they labored from sunup to sundown, in the privacy of their living quarters, and in clandestine worship services.4 Indeed, for the masses of slaves who could not read, the “spirituals were their channel to the word of God.”5 The Bible in song highlighted the basic tenets of the Christian faith—love, hope, mercy, grace, justice, judgment, death, eternal life. It was also a guide for living the Christian life, as the following spiritual illustrates:
For in dat Bible you will see,
Jesus died fer you an’ me.
Matthew, Mark, Luke an’ John
Tell me where my Master’s gone.
Go read de fifth of Matthew
An’ read de chapter through,
It is de guide to Christians,
An’ tell ’em what to do.
Now take yo’ Bible an’ read it through,
An’ ev’y word you fin’ is true.
The spirituals, then, served as an important medium for teaching and learning the Bible within the black community.
And they still can. In Reclaiming the Spirituals, I argue that these songs offer numerous creative approaches to teaching not only the biblical text but also African American Christian heritage. In fact, the spirituals embody various educational elements (e.g., dialogue, imagination, spontaneity, rhythm, narrative, nature, and ritual) that can enhance the overall educational experience. I have seen this at work in local church settings where spirituals embodying biblical narratives are used to reenact the stories of biblical heroes and heroines. Some churches have also used spirituals to recount the Christmas story in song.
Yet many African American churches today have lost sight of the spirituals as a mode of education and as a critical part of their rich heritage. They have replaced the spirituals as well as the oral tradition with print resources that do not reflect their heritage. By incorporating these materials, many churches assumed that they were promoting a “more ‘proper’ religious instruction than had been provided, presumably, by the oral tradition.”6 Given this trend, the spirituals may be lost not only as an important aspect of the African American Christian heritage but also as a source for teaching the biblical text. It is essential that African American Christians reclaim this valuable resource along with the oral tradition grounded in their heritage. Otherwise, additional aspects of the oral tradition such as poetry, dance, music, ritual, metaphors, proverbs, folktales, and historical accounts may be lost as well.
A Theology of Freedom and Self-Worth
In addition to serving as an educational tool, the spirituals can strengthen the life of the worshiping community. During the antebellum period, the spirituals were a crucial part of spontaneous, high-spirited worship services, which consisted of preaching, praying, singing, dancing, shouting, and fellowship. Grounded in their understanding of the Bible, enslaved Africans employed a unique interpretation of God, Jesus, and human worth. Indeed, they saw themselves as full “children of God” despite their condition of slavery and despite slave owners’ teachings. Identifying closely with the children of Israel and the Exodus story, the slaves embraced a vision of God as the deliverer of the oppressed. They viewed Jesus not only as a suffering servant and friend who understood oppression but also as a conquering king who, through the power of his resurrection, could overcome even the most oppressive structures. The slaves believed and affirmed in song that they were valued in the eyes of God and that one day they too would experience deliverance from their bondage. This understanding of the Bible sparked a sense of self-worth within the enslaved community and inspired their resistance to bond- age and efforts toward freedom. The antebellum black preacher reinforced this belief by reminding the worshiping community through the preaching and teaching of the Bible that they were created in God’s image and were, therefore, loved by God.7
The biblical message of the spirituals can serve a similar function in today’s worshiping community by reinforcing messages of love, hope, resistance, survival, deliverance, and self-worth. In my work with African American churches, I have discovered that many African American youth (and some adults) know little about their history of struggle and the contributions that came out of it. This lack of knowledge has often led to a poor sense of self-worth, a lack of direction for the future.
But I am convinced that a clear understanding of their rich heritage can help African American youth increase self-worth and exercise their God-given potential. One way of exposing young people to this legacy is through the worship experience. As a teenager, my introduction to the spirituals during worship opened up a new understanding of myself. Rather than using only contemporary praise songs in worship (which so many churches are now doing), I prefer to expose youth to the African American spirituals and the biblical messages that undergird them because they provide a more culturally and historically authentic worship experience.
For example, the spirituals invite deep reflection upon God’s particular involvement in the life of the African American community throughout history. This is in contrast to the more individualistic and supposedly universal experience of God embodied in many contemporary praise songs. Though praise songs can play a helpful role in the African American church, the spirituals encourage African Americans to engage a theology and heritage that remembers God’s sustaining power in their community. I recently observed the liberating power of the spirituals when an African American student approached me after I had finished a presentation on the spirituals. With tears in her eyes, she noted that the spirituals helped her to replace negative images of herself (and her ancestors) with positive ones and that she is now embracing the fullness of her heritage.
Finally, the biblical message embodied in spirituals can provide contemporary African Americans with a sense of hope, assurance, and confidence even in the most difficult situations. This was the case for enslaved Africans, who voiced not only the despair about their living conditions under the harsh system of chattel slavery but also a hope for freedom. Although “freedom from slavery and freedom from life were often synonymous,”8 this desire did not mean that the slaves had accepted the constraints of slavery. The tone of many spirituals indicates that some of the slaves were determined to resist the bonds of slavery in this world.9 Consequently, spirituals such as “Oh, Freedom” inspired a spirit of hope and resistance.
Oh freedom! O freedom!
Oh freedom over me!
An’ befo’ I’d be a slave,
I’ll be buried in my grave,
An’ go home to my Lord an’ be free.
This profound and defiant expression of faith was unambiguous in its call for both spiritual and physical liberation. The spirituals were a means of coping with the deepest despair and disappointment. Yet, the biblical message embodied in these songs inspired a sense of hope and assurance that the enslaved Africans would one day be free.
Today, the African American community must confront a myriad of challenges that seem insurmountable, such as racism, classism, sexism, discrimination, poverty, unemployment, poor access to education and health care, economic and political disenfranchisement, and the HIV/AIDS pandemic. However, the Bible in song still embodies a message of assurance, and confidence in the power to overcome hopelessness. It has happened before. During the civil rights movement, African Americans transformed many spirituals into protest and freedom songs that empowered the African American community to struggle against racism, injustice, and discrimination. Continuing to reinterpret the spirituals for contemporary African Americans, I believe they can be a way to engage critical issues facing the African American church and community. Certainly, the role they played during the antebellum period and the civil rights movement suggests their renewable power and application in the cause of resistance against contemporary forms of oppression.
The African American Christian experience reflects a history of survival, resistance, protest, and resilience. The spirituals, carrying biblical themes that still resonate with the black Christian community, embody that legacy. To forsake these unique songs, the gift of this music and theology, would be to lose an important message of hope that can empower the African American community to trouble the waters of injustice and to struggle for a better day.
1. Adapted from Yolanda Y. Smith, “Christian Education and the African-American Spirituals: Recommended Resources,” Religious Education 101, no. 4 (fall 2006): 533–34, reprinted by permission of the publisher (Taylor & Francis Ltd, http://www. tandf.co.uk/journals ). Excerpts also from Yolanda Y. Smith, Reclaiming the Spirituals: New Possibilities for African American Christian Education (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2004), 30, 38, 78, 107, 112. Copyright 2004 by The Pilgrim Press. Adapted by permission.
2 . E. Franklin Frazier, The Negro Church in America (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 12. Quoted in Cain Hope Felder, Troubling Biblical Waters: Race, Class, and Family (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1990), 85.
3. See Howard Thurman, Deep River and the Negro Spiritual Speaks of Life and Death (1975 reprint, Richmond, Ind.: Friends United Press, 1990), 12–15.
4. Ella Mitchell, “Oral Tradition: Legacy of Faith for the Black Church,” Religious Education 81, no. 1 (winter 1986): 99–104; Thomas L. Webber, Deep Like the Rivers: Education in the Slave Quarter Community, 1831–1865 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1978), 191–205, 207–8.
5. Albert Raboteau, Slave Religion: The “Invisible Institution” in the Antebellum South (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978).
6. Mitchell, “Oral Tradition,”106.
7. Thurman, “Deep River,” 11–12.
8. Thurman, “Deep River,” 29.
9. Thurman, “Deep River,” 25–30.
Yolanda Smith, Assistant Professor of Christian Education at Yale Divinity School, is author of Reclaiming the Spirituals: New Possibilities for African American Christian Education (Pilgrim Press, 2004). An ordained Baptist minister, she is now collaborating in a research project called “ ‘Been in the Storm So Long’: Yale Divinity School and the Black Ministry—One Hundred and Fifty Years of Black Theological Education.”