The allusions often found in most Negro Spirituals have, in my opinion, their roots deeply planted in the trials and tribulations of life itself. I have chosen to look at the allusions found in these spirituals from the perspective of Christianity and slavery.
The most famous slave who mastered the allusions of spirituals was Harriet Tubman. She used them as “Songs of the Underground Railroad” or the Underground Railroad’s secret code language. The spirituals cited below all speak to the aspects mentioned above: The faithful souls and the burden of slavery.
The spiritual song “I Will Be Done” clearly established a character hoping that death would befall him or her due to the hardship of the life of slavery itself. As the spiritual explains:
Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world,
Troubles of the world, the troubles of the world,
Soon I will be done with the troubles of the world.
Goin’ home to live with God.
This spiritual speaks of long-suffering, a person who believes in the promise of the coming of Christ as interpreted by many Western Christian religions. Although it speaks of hope, it also revealed a sense of desperation, as if life here on Earth is excruciatingly unbearable.
As the spiritual further illuminates:
“No more weepin’ and wailing.
No more weepin’ and wailing.
No more weepin’ and wailing.
I’m goin’ to live with God.
The promise of going to live with God has been an introduction within whites’ philosophy in the wake of slavery. They believed that Black Africans needed to be tamed from their savage ways.
It was, however, the very vehicle that aided many of our forefathers during slavery. In the spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus,” we can see the testimony to the creative way most slaves devised the escape method. The study of Black American History testified that one courageous woman, Tubman — known as the “Moses of her people” — utilized the aspect of spirituals as the communicating vehicle for her Underground Railroad success. In the spiritual “Steal Away to Jesus,” the message of Tubman revealed itself:
Steal away, steal away, and steal away to Jesus,
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here.
By using this spiritual as a means of a code, slaves would know when to prepare themselves for the harsh reality of escaping to freedom. “Steal away to Jesus” was, in fact, a substitute for “escape to freedom.” The concept of “home,” in this perspective, does not speak of the Mother Land Africa; instead, “home” in this sense was never a physical place. It was, in fact, “anywhere” except in the hands of bondage.
The famous spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” has been a staple of Black folklife for years. Unlike “Steal Away to Jesus” and “No More Auction Block,” these spirituals consider both the anticipation of freedom from slavery and the hope and faith expressed within most Christian circles. “Sweet chariot” is the standard method by which those who served the Lord would be traveling to Heaven’s gate.
Moreover, it was also how some slaves envisioned going back to Africa. In this context, one could also look at the famous story of the “Black Starliner,” the preponderance of Marcus Garvey’s Back to Africa Movement of the 1920s.
According to the spiritual:
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home,
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Coming for to carry me home . . .
According to most African American scholars, the singing of this song is where the real emphasis lies. When sung with gusto, especially in a revivalist church, the effect can be electrifying. On the other hand, when sung in “Masah yard,” the effect could be threatening — not for the slaves, but the white masters.
For instance, Tubman used this song, and when a slave heard it, he knew he had to be ready to escape. In the biography “Life of Harriet Tubman,” by Sarah Hopkins Bradford, “The Underground Railroad (sweet chariot) is coming south (swing low) to take the slave to the north or freedom (carry me home).
“Wade in the Water,” Bradford said, tells slaves to get into the water to avoid being seen and make it through. This, she said, is an example of a map song, where directions coded into the lyrics:
Wade in the water, wade in the water children
Wade in the water. God’s gonna trouble the water.
Who are these children dressed in red?
According to Calvin Earl in his blog “African American Spirituals Are A National Treasure,” “Wade in The Water” is one of the spirituals that has many secret codes embedded within the song apart from the lyrics referencing the Christian tradition of baptism. “Often the religious rite of sprinkling water onto a person’s forehead or of the immersion of a person’s body in water, or as the Bible tells the story of John the Baptist baptized, people in the river symbolizes purification and choosing to live your life in the Christian faith.”
The secret code in “Wade in The Water” for slaves trying to escape on the Underground Railroad meant to be aware that one of the methods used by the slave masters to track down runaway slaves was to use bloodhounds.
The lyrics were instruction for runaway slaves that, if they could hear bloodhounds close behind, they needed to find a body of water and wade in. That’s because the bloodhounds could then no longer pick up the scent and the slave would be safe.
In celebrating this Black History Month, the time has come when we should embrace our slave ancestors — who like the Soul singers of America, the Reggae singers of Jamaica or the Calypso singers of Trinidad — were Jubilee singers.
— Winston Nugent, St. Croix, is a recipient of the Caribbean Writer’s Marguerite Cobb McKay Prize and the winner of The Virgin Islands Daily News Prize for short stories and essays.