Why Did Slaves Sing Spiritual Songs

Since moving to the north, I've been astounded by the number of people who can speak of slaves singing as evidence of their satisfaction and happiness. It's difficult to imagine a more egregious error. When slaves are dissatisfied, they sing the loudest. The slave's songs mirror his heart's sorrows, and he is relieved by them, just as an aching heart is relieved by tears.

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From Chapter 2 of Frederick Douglass's Narrative of the Life of an American Slave, 1845, digitized by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, on land owned by Aaron Anthony, who handled the lands of Edward Lloyd V, the Governor of Maryland at the time. Frederick Douglass was his given name. In his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he states that he does not know his exact date of birth, but that he was born about 1818. He chose February 14th as his birthday. His theory is supported by information from the Maryland State Archives. Anthony's slaves are listed in a ledger, and Frederick Augustus was born to a slave, Harriet, in February 1818. So, in February, we commemorate the birth of a wonderful American who did everything he could to enlighten his country and campaign for the rights of all people living inside its borders.

I grew up in Maryland, just like Douglass, and I know my abolitionist great-grandmother saw him speak at least once because she mentioned it in a letter to my great-grandfather. As a result, he is not just a national hero, but also a personal hero for me. I've walked in the same places he did, and I recognize spots he mentioned in his autobiographies.

Douglass was raised believing that his father was a white guy and that he was the son of his slave master. As a baby, he was taken away from his mother so that she may return to work in the fields as soon as possible. She was also sent away to work on another ranch when he was small, so he didn't get to see her much. During slavery, it was customary for infants to be separated from their mothers. During his early years, Douglass was cared for by his grandmother, Betsy. However, he recalls sleeping on the ground, wearing only a coarse linen shift, and sharing a terrible food with other children:

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Our supper consisted of cooked coarse corn meal. This was referred to as mush. It was placed in a huge wooden trough or tray and placed on the ground. The children were then herded in like pigs, and like pigs, they came to devour the mush; some with oyster shells, some with shingle pieces, some with their bare hands, and none with spoons. The person who ate the most got the most; the person who was the strongest got the best spot; and just a few people left the trough satisfied.— Chapter 5 of Frederick Douglass's Narrative of His Life.

As a tiny child, he remembered hiding in a cupboard, terrified, as his master brutally thrashed his Aunt Hester. This occurrence is referred to by him as “I was about to pass through a blood-stained gate, the entry to the agony of slavery” (chapter 1). He also describes in full an incident in which a slave named Demby was shot and killed by an overseer (chapter 4). These events, which must have been horrific for him, he describes in order for his reader to realize that no law governs the treatment of slaves on the plantation, and that fear is part of what keeps blacks enslaved.

Douglass wrote about slave culture and slave ownership culture in the same way as an ethnographer would. He goes into great depth about his life before escaping to freedom. Whippings were a rite of passage for the young, and watching them was a form of initiation. As he recalls the drinking contests put on slaves as part of the entertainment for slave masters, even a brief holiday at Christmas was an exercise in bondage. “The festivals are a component of slavery's egregious deceit, wrongdoing, and inhumanity,” he added (chapter 10). What he wrote astounded his readers, revealing a reality of slavery that few in the north were aware of.

What were spiritual songs used for?

The term “spirituals” comes from the nineteenth century and refers to “songs with religious contents written by African slaves in America.” Spirituals were the name given to slave songs in the first book released.

In the 1990s, the term “spirituals” was used to characterize “The Spirituals Project” in musicology and ethnomusicology.

For the numbered and itemized entry, the US Library of Congress uses the phrase “African American Spirituals.” The singular form is used without the term “African American” in the opening phrase. The singular and plural forms of the phrase are used throughout the encyclopedia entry without the “African American” description. The first sentence of the LOC says, “A spiritual is a form of religious folksong linked with the enslavement of African-Americans in the American South. The songs became popular in the final decades of the eighteenth century, leading up to the 1860s, when legalized slavery was abolished. The African American spiritual (also known as the Negro Spiritual) is one of the most popular and influential types of American folk music.”

What type of songs did slaves sing?

Slave music took in many different forms. Despite the fact that the Negro spirituals are the most well-known type of slave music, secular music was just as popular as sacred music. Individual field hollers, work songs shouted by groups of laborers, and satirical songs all existed.

Why does Frederick Douglass describe the songs that the enslaved people sing and how they sing them so carefully?

Why does Frederick Douglass spend so much time describing the songs that enslaved people sing and how they sing them? It aids Douglass in refuting the notion that the Bible justifies slavery in America.

How did the slaves resist slavery?

Mount Vernon's enslaved residents did not accept their enslavement passively. Slavery was opposed in a variety of ways, with varying degrees of intensity and approach. Actions like as feigning illness, working slowly, creating bad work, and misplacing or damaging tools and equipment were among the less obvious ways of resistance. The main advantage of these ostensibly “passive” techniques was that they were often impossible to see and prove for George Washington and his managers. Furthermore, these tactics of resistance could be used by practically any enslaved individual, regardless of age or physical prowess.1

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At the other end of the resistance spectrum were more active and visible measures like theft, arson, agricultural sabotage, and fleeing. While these activities could be particularly pleasurable for a dissatisfied person, they also involved a far higher chance of being discovered and punished. Theft was one of George Washington's most frequently reported acts of apparent opposition in his personal papers. Tools, textiles, yams, raw wool, wine, rum, milk, butter, fruits, meats, corn, and potatoes have all been suspected of being stolen by enslaved laborers at Mount Vernon over the years.

Running away and escaping were sometimes used by enslaved individuals to oppose involuntary slavery. During Washington's lifetime, at least 47 enslaved people attempted to flee Mount Vernon or other Washington-owned property (about 7 percent of the total population). The majority of the runaways were young men, but women sometimes attempted to flee. The bulk of people went on their own, while other people fled in groups. In April of 1781, the biggest flight took place. While the British vessel Savage stopped in the Potomac off the beach of the plantation, seventeen people—Lucy, Ester, Deborah, Peter, Lewis, Frank, Fredrick, Harry Washington, Tom, Sambo, Thomas, Peter, Stephen, James, Wally, Daniel, and Gunner—escape Mount Vernon. 2

At least three of the people who tried to flee the Washingtons over the years collaborated closely with the Washingtons. In 1799, Christopher Sheels, who worked as George Washington's personal valet, planned to flee but was discovered. On February 22, 1797, Hercules, a chef, ran away and was never seen or heard from again. Finally, Ona Judge, Martha Washington's personal maid, departed the presidential mansion in Philadelphia on May 21, 1796, and despite the Washingtons' best efforts, she refused to return to Mount Vernon and be enslaved once more.

1. See John Hope Franklin and Loren Schweniger, Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2000); Ira Berlin, Generations of Captivity: A History of African-American Slaves (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Eugene Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2003); Eugene Genovese, Generations of Captivity: A History (New York: Vintage Books, 1976).

2. “George Washington to Lund Washington, 30 April 1781,” in George Washington's Writings, Vol. 22, ed. John C. Fitzpatrick (Washington, DC: United States Government Printing Office, 1942), 14-5, 14n.

What are coded spirituals?

  • Inquire about the meaning of the term “coded spirituals.” (Refer to the objectives.) They might be asked to define the phrase Spirituals first. Then talk about the concept of coded spirituals. (Refer to the objectives.)


A spiritual is a religious song that communicates themes of personal closeness and contact with God, typically in the Christian African American heritage. Certain musical idioms are frequently used in African American spirituals. These are some of them: “Call and response” is a technique in which one phrase is followed by another. Another distinguishing feature is the employment of “The accenting of a beat that would not typically be accented or the absence of a beat where one would normally be accented are both examples of syncopated rhythm. Spirituals are deeply felt music. They frequently display strong emotions of joy and grief. In African American spirituals, the believer or the church is sometimes compared to Old Testament figures. Spirituals were sometimes coded in African American history, especially during the experience of enslavement, meaning that the message was purposefully hidden from slave owners and other whites by using terms or phrases known by the singers but not by the slave owners. Referring to the Free States as “the promised land” or slave owners as “Pharaoh” is an example. The extent to which spirituals were purposely coded is still a point of contention among historians. Listeners often regarded lyrics about biblical heroes' suffering as a reference to their own personal hardship, and derived strength from such songs.

  • To generate debate, play the musical selections for the kids. You may want to deliver lyrics at this time, depending on the class. DISCUSSION TIPS, SUGGESTED ANSWERS, AND SO ON CAN BE FOUND IN THE MATERIALS SECTION.

How did slaves talk to each other?

Slaves coordinated their labor, communicated with one another across adjacent fields, strengthened weary spirits, and remarked on their owners' oppression through singing, call and response, and yelling.

What message was hidden in the song Wade in the Water?

Harriet Tubman, for example, sang “Wade in the Water” to warn runaway slaves to get off the trail and into the water so that slavecatchers' dogs couldn't track them down. Dogs could not follow a scent trail left by people walking through water.