Spiritual Songs Still Inspire Blacks Today

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February is Black History Month and part of that history includes the role that faith played in the lives of African-American slaves.

During those times, slaves often sang for inspiration and in a similar manner, songs of faith have continued to inspire Black Americans today.

"I can't sing about Him unless I really love Him like I do and I do love the Lord," gospel singer Shirley Caeser told CBN News. "Because I love the Lord, I find great joy in singing about Him."

Caeser, the proclaimed "queen of gospel music," isn't alone. Songs about faith and devotion to God are near and dear to the hearts of many African Americans.

Whether it's swaying with gospel choirs, tapping along with quartets or simply raising hands to the rhythm of soul-stirring songs, gospel music can be seen and heard throughout black America.

The Birth of Gospel Music

Black gospel music was first popularized in the 1930s when Thomas Dorsey, the son of a Baptist preacher, combined shouts of praise and emotional fervor with a contemporary style.

But Black America's love affair with gospel hymns began long before Dorsey came along. It was birthed at a time when their ancestors sang about wanting to be free.

When African Americans toiled as slaves on plantations, many of them saw themselves in the sufferings of Christ and turned to God for strength. But their suffering turned into faith-- a faith that found utterance in song.

They're called negro spirituals or the songs of slaves. Dr. Carl Harris has studied them for a number of years.

"Once slaves came from Africa, here they didn't feel that this was home so they thought about a better place," Harris explained, listening to "Swing Low Sweet Chariot. "'Coming for to carry me home' was perhaps the sentiment they felt once they got here."

Connecting with the Bible

Harris says many of the slave songs were drawn from Bible stories.

"Stories about Daniel and Moses, and Joshua -- all of these had meaning," he said. "So some of the spirituals come from those experiences. Having heard about these people who were freed from whatever bondage they were in and the slaves said perhaps I will be free someday too."

Harris says these same songs also helped slaves find their way to freedom.

"Wade in the Water I think is one of the of the baptismal spirituals," he said.

"It shows how bright and how smart these slaves were," he added. "That they could use songs that they had invented themselves, that they had made out of their own oral tradition. That they could use these songs in helping them go to a better place to go to freedom."

In the end, the legacy of negro spirituals is one of courage, faith and strength --a legacy that keeps African Americans freely singing today.

This story was originally published February 2006.

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Charlene Israel

Charlene Israel

CBN News Reporter

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