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Sunday, February 23, 2014

American Negro Spirituals - A Christian Heritage

English: cropped version of Image:Harriet Tubm...
English: cropped version of Image:Harriet Tubman.jpg (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Many of us have grown up hearing and singing the old African negro spirituals like Wade In The Water, Steal Away, Swing Low Sweet Chariot and many others. These songs were believed to send secret messages among the slaves to show them means of escape. While Wade In The Water is believed to contain explicit instructions to the slaves to escape by means of water in order to throw pursuing bloodhounds off their scent, the song does have its roots in Christianity. In the Old Testament, God gave Moses the blueprint for leading the Israelites out of captivity by means of the Red Sea. The song also borrows a phrase in the New Testament about an angel troubling the water to bring about healing to anyone who went into the pool in time. 

Swing Low Sweet Chariot is another popular negro spiritual that was believed to contain coded means of escape for the slaves. In fact, it was thought to be a favorite of Harriet Tubman, notable leader of the Underground Railroad. However, unlike Wade In The Water and other negro spirituals whose composers are largely unknown, most historians believe that Swing Low Sweet Chariot was composed by "Uncle Wallis", a slave of a Chocktaw Indian tribe who had been converted to Christianity.

At the time, the Chocktaws  were one of the five "civilized" Indian tribes who practiced a  form of slavery similar to that of the whites. Brit Willis, Uncle Wallis' owner, hired Wallis out to entertain the Chocktaw boys  at Spencer Academy, and the song became popular among them, not among African-American slaves. In fact, the song was not circulated among African-Americans until after the civil war.

As I researched the information for this post, I was reminded of the song, By The Rivers of Babylon, sung by the Israelites after they were taken captive to Babylon. That song is based on these words from Psalm 137: By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion. 2 There on the poplars we hung our harps, 3 for there our captors asked us for songs, our tormentors demanded songs of joy; they said, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" 4 How can we sing the songs of the LORD while in a foreign land?

Is it a lot different from African slaves holding their secret church meetings and singing and crying out to their God for spiritual as well as physical deliverance? I don't think so.  
Enjoy this moving video below.

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