“Go down Moses
Way down in Egypt’s land
To let my people go!”
When you take someone and make them a slave, the first thing you must do is take away their identity. Starting with the removal of their name, you take away all traces of their former selves. You do not just remove a people from their environment, but you remove those things that influence that environment. The slave must have no connection to his former way of life or his former way of thinking at all least he realizes he is a slave. If the slave realizes he is a slave, you will have a hard time keeping him in a perpetual state of captivity.
“When you control a man’s way of thinking you do not have to worry about his actions. You do not have to tell him not to stand here or go yonder. He will find his “proper” place and stay in it. You do not need to send him to the back door. He will go without being told. In fact, if there is no back door, he will cut one for his special benefit. His education makes it necessary.” - Carter G Woodson
During slavery in the United States, there were systematic efforts to strip the identity of the captive. One of these efforts was known as the seasoning process where everything that would connect the enslaved to his natural heritage was taken from him. When the so-called African was taken from the West coast of Africa, it was not a simple transition but he had to undergo an entire initiation process before stepping foot on the plantations of America. His name was taken from him, his way of life stripped from him, his spirituality forbidden, and his history book taken from him. He was not allowed to read and to write. In return, he was given a new way of life, the religion of his slave masters, and a name that reflected their gods. He was made into a Negro.
Being unlawful for the Negro to read and to write, the Negro Spiritual becomes an intriguing study of its own. How did a people who were not allowed to read the Bible sing songs with such deep spiritual concepts?
The words of the earliest known Negro spirituals are taken directly from biblical scripture, are very much poetic, and can be considered in the truest form the Spoken Word. The passion in which these songs were sung most certainly adds to the rhythm, texture, melody, tempo, variation, and emotional depth of the words. So much so that we cannot ignore that the power in which these songs were sung could not come from a people who made stuff up along the cotton-filled aisles of Mississippi and Alabama. These songs were sung with such power because of a people who lived them.
Wade in the Water
Wade in the Water children
Wade in the Water…
See that band all dressed in white….
The leader looks like that Israelite…
See the band all dressed in red…
Looks like the band that Moses led…
A basic study of the Physical Appearance of the ancient Israelites and Egyptians and one will see that they were a black-skinned people. The word Ham in Hebrew is Khwam, and it means “hot, burnt, and black.” The first-born son of Ham, Cush, forms the Kushite nation. They were also called and known as the ancient Ethiopians. Ethiopia comes from the Greek word, Aethipos, which means, “burnt or blackface.” The Greeks applied this name to the people living south of Egypt. The name Egypt comes from the word Aegyptus though the Egyptians called themselves Khemet / Kemet, which is a variation of the Hebrew word Khawm (Ham). It means, “People of the black land.”
The Israelites were also Black and often mistaken for Egyptians. Not only did Moses pass as the grandson of Pharaoh for 40 years (Acts 7:22–23) but Reuel’s daughters thought Moses was an Egyptian (“…and they said, an Egyptian rescued us…” Ex. 2:19). This is because the Egyptians and the Israelites looked alike. Moses, Abraham, The Prophets and even the Messiah, would have looked like your typical Black person had they walked the earth today. Wade in the Water is a very revealing song comparing the captivity of the Israelites in Egypt to the Captivity of the African American in America who has been brought to a new Egypt, only this time in ships. This was not just a comparison, symbolism or biblical inspiration, this was a song sung by the same people. Biblical history is Black history and our ancestors knew it.
But the Negro Spiritual did more than reveal factual information about the true identity of Blacks or that talked about the Old Testament; it was also a way of communication for the slaves who could not otherwise communicate without being caught and punished. Wade in the Water for example, was one of those songs that gave hint to the runaway to go into the water when he is being chased. He goes into the water because the dogs will lose track of his scent. Therefore, if he is being hunted down he is being told to “Wade in the Water.” Imagine running for your life through thick Mississippi woods and then suddenly hearing the strong melody of a song carried by the wind. In the distance, just as you approach a river “wade in the water” it commands you.
The same is true for “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” which was also a song of dual meaning:
“I looked over Jordan,
And what did I see,
Comin for to carry me home
A band of angels comin after me
Coming for to carry me home
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin forth to carry me home;
Swing low, sweet chariot,
Comin forth to carry me home”
Swing Low Sweet Chariot is a very powerful song and has a dual meaning. Contrary to popular belief it is not a song about dying and going to heaven. Not in the way that we think. It is a song about the New Jerusalem coming down from heaven like a bride adorned for her husband (‘looked over Jordan’ what’s over Jordan? Israel is over Jordan) and about the Messiah coming down with his bands of angels in a chariot. It is directly out of the book of Revelations. Again, this is a people who weren’t allowed to read the bible and yet this song could only be sung by a people who had great biblical insight and understanding.
Swing Low was also a song about The Underground Railroad. Swing low, Sweet Chariot also refers to Ripley, a “station” of the underground railroad where fugitive slaves were welcomed. But this town was on a hill by the Ohio River, which is not easy to cross. So, to teach this place, fugitives had to wait for help coming from the hill. “Swing low, sweet chariot.”
“Halleluyah I’m a travelin
Halleluyah ain’t it fine?
Halleluyah I’m a travelin
down freedom’s main line”
-1961 Freedom Song
Negro Spirituals did not stop at slavery, but for every movement of African American people, each was followed by a certain cultural theme. The times did not change without a change in music, in clothing, in hairstyle, and in thought. On the plantation brothers and sisters shaved their heads to escape captivity, during the New Negro Movement of the early 1900s it was all about straightened hair, and during the Civil Rights, Black Power, and Revolutionary movements brothers and sisters wore Afros as a cultural statement of the social-economic and political climate of the era. Today, many brothers and sisters are wearing Dred Locs.
Every movement we have been or are a part of has had its own unique style that said something about the thought of Black people at that time. Even today’s music can be considered an extension of The Negro Spiritual.
Yecheilyah (e-SEE-li-yah, affectionately nicknamed EC) is an Author, Blogger, and Poet and lives in Marietta, GA with her wonderful husband. She is the founder of Literary Korner Publishing and The PBS Blog. She enjoys helping other authors via her blog interviews and book reviews. The PBS Blog has been among Reedsy’s Best Book Review blogs of 2017 and 2018. When she’s not writing, Yecheilyah is teaching Pre-K and spending time with her lovely family. https://www.yecheilyahysrayl.com