Gospel Heritage: The Roots of African-American Spirituals

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Every February, millions of Americans celebrate Black History. Part of that history includes the role faith played in the lives of African-American slaves.

I took a look at the spiritual songs of the slaves – and how songs of faith continue to inspire Black Americans today.

Shirley Ceasar doesn't just sing Gospel music – she means it.

Shirley Ceasar is a Gospel Music artist. She told me, "I can't sing about Him, unless I really love Him like I do. And I love the Lord. And because I love the Lord, I find great joy in singing about Him.”

The 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, or 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.

Shirley Ceasar said, "We heard the white church sing, ‘Blessed assurance Jesus is mine,’ but we stretched it out as: Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine, mine, mine."

Black Gospel Music was first popularized in the 1930's, 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, many of them saw themselves in the sufferings of Christ – often turning to God for strength. But their suffering soon turned into faith – a faith that found utterance in song.

Dr. Carl Harris played a little of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot.” Then he said, “Just a little bit of ‘Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Coming For to Carry Me Home – that's an early spiritual, perhaps one of the early ones.”

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

Harris is a Professor of Music at Hampton University. He said, "Once slaves came from Africa, here, they didn't feel that this was home. So they thought about a better place – ‘coming for to carry me home’ perhaps was the sentiment they felt, once they got here."

Dr. Harris says many of the slave songs were drawn from Bible stories. He said, "Stories about Daniel and Moses, and Joshua – all of these had a lot of meaning. So, some of the spirituals come from those experiences.”

He added, “Having heard about these people who were freed — from whatever bondage they were in — the slaves said, ‘Perhaps I will be free someday too. If it's good for them, then it's good for me too.’"

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

He played “Wade in the Water”, then said, "’Wade in the Water,’ I think, is one of the baptismal spirituals."

Dr. Harris went on, “It shows the ingenuity, it shows how bright and how smart these slaves were: 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 to 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.

Then Shirley Ceasar began to sing, “I've come too far to turn around….”


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CBN News
Charlene  Aaron

Charlene Aaron

CBN News Reporter

Charlene Aaron serves as a general assignment reporter and helps anchor for the CBN News Channel.  Follow her on Twitter @CharNews and "like" her at Facebook.com/CharleneIsraelCBNNews.