“LETTING IT SHINE—THE AFRICAN AMERICAN SPIRITUAL”
by Catherine Clinton
“This little light of mine, I’m gonna let it shine…”
The rich musical tradition of the African American experience continues to infuse listeners with lessons of hope, lessons of sacrifice, endurance, and struggle. It should be no surprise that music was employed as a clandestine form of communication, conveying at times coded conversation, as a means of subverting enslavement on American shores. Just as persons of African descent resisted their masters, many adapted to a Kongo-Christianity that incorporated traditional rhythms and sounds to the hymns they were taught, making these songs their own, carrying messages of hope and freedom forward. The American spiritual was reborn—with its powerful legacy for us today.
These songs did more than inspire African Americans in bondage, as they gave testimony to lifting every voice against the mighty scourge of slavery. Spirituals created a melodic challenge to racism’s blunt force trauma--when millions were ripped from their homes and sold on the auction block. Haunting songs reminded survivors and descendants of the Middle Passage---be it across the Atlantic from a homeland when too many died in watery graves while others landed in a new world. Next this musical tradition became synonymous with the black experience when nearly a million were trans-shipped across the Continent as slavery fueled a westward stampede. Spirituals reminded those denied even the freedom of worship that they needed to maintain faith to, in Harriet Tubman’s mantra, “Keep going.”
Flights to freedom were often fueled by a desire to escape both the lash of slavery and the yoke of racism, which kept African Americans enthralled before emancipation. In the nation’s earliest days, the self-liberators of the Underground Railroad set up networks by the hundreds, with elaborate schemes to spirit bodies and souls away by the thousands. Robbing slaveholders of their chattel and signaling that the spirit of resistance could not be suppressed forever in a land where so many sought dignity and liberty, where so many were willing to fight and die for emancipationist ideals. The messages embedded within these spirituals symbolized a renewed struggle for freedom. And these songs of celebration rang out, calling people to journey to freedom, to seek a better home—on earth or in heaven, but confident that the light would shine.
Catherine Clinton holds a chair in U.S. history at Queen’s University Belfast where she teaches African American and women’s history. She has published more than twenty scholarly volumes, including Harriet Tubman: The Road to Freedom (selected as one of the best books of 2004 by both the Christian Science Monitor and the Chicago Tribune) . She writes as well for younger readers, including the picture book, Phillis’s Big Test, which tells the story of Phillis Wheatley. For more information: www.catherineclinton.com
© Catherine Clinton
Black History Month Concert:
The African American Spiritual
Feb. 5, 2012
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