Black History Month is a great time to celebrate the achievements of African-American writers, artists, musicians, scientists, and religious and political leaders. It’s also a great time to learn about and reflect on the historical and cultural contexts from which these achievements emerged. One way is to take a journey into the rich and vibrant culture that developed in African-American slave communities in the face of horrific oppression and adversity.
For example, a close look at slave spirituals called Sorrow Songs reveals an awe-inspiring story of hope, collaboration, ingenuity, and an unstoppable hunger for freedom.
The Sorrow Songs are not the songs played by slave musicians at an owner’s social gathering and they’re not the hymns sung during formal church services. Nor are they the great slave narratives of Frederick Douglas and Harriet Jacobs, written to galvanize the abolitionist cause. Most slaves would not have been able to read the narratives even if they had access to them.
Instead, the Sorrow Songs were created collaboratively by the slave community for the slave community. They were current events bulletins and teaching tools. How did the community know that many escaped slaves were crossing into the Union? “Many Thousands Gone.” How did a runaway avoid being detected by dogs? “Wade in the Water.” How did the word get out about a secret meeting? “Steal Away to Jesus.“ The songs connected European Christian imagery with the slaves’ spiritual values. They poked fun at the masters and eased labor. In other words, in a depraved world where humans were allowed to own humans, the slaves created beauty and meaning that they alone owned. “Slavery and Freedom,” unit 7 of American Passages: A Literary Survey, provides context and content for this exploration.
Find ideas for connecting this remarkable story to other aspects of slave community culture or to the emergence of gospel and jazz music in the unit’s Author Activities page. Students could try collaborating on music and lyrics for a Sorrow Song of their own or revise an existing song to reflect a current event. Students may also make connections to how other oppressed groups have used music or other arts to subvert oppressors.
What stories from Black History will you be exploring with your students this month?