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Spiritual Songs Still Inspire African-Americans

By Charlene Israel
CBN News Producer – (CBN News) – This month, millions of Americans will celebrate black history.  Part of that history includes the role of faith in the lives of African-American slaves. 

Today we’ll take a look at the spiritual songs of the slaves, and how songs of faith continue to inspire black Americans today.

Shirley Caesar does not just sing gospel music -- she means it.

"I can't sing about Him unless I really love Him like I do, and I do love the Lord,” she said. “And because I love the Lord, I find great joy in singing about Him.”

The Queen of Gospel Music is not alone. Songs about faith and devotion to God are near and dear to the hearts of many African-Americans.

Whether it is 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.

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, 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 undergoing the sufferings of Christ, often turning to God for strength.  But their suffering turned into faith -- a faith that found utterance in song.

Dr. Carl Harris, a music professor at Hampton University in Virginia, played “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” and explained that it was “an early spiritual -- perhaps one of the earlier ones.”

They are called Negro spirituals, or the songs of slaves -- something Harris has studied for a number of years. "Once slaves came from Africa here, they didn't feel that this was home,” explained Harris, “so they thought about a better place; ‘coming for to carry me home’ was perhaps the sentiment they felt, once they got here."

Harris said many of the slave songs were drawn from Bible stories, "stories about Daniel and Moses, and Joshua. All of these had meaning, so some of the spirituals come from those experiences. Having heard about these people who were freed from whatever bondage they were in… the slaves said, perhaps I will be free someday too -- that 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. "’Wade in the Water,” I think, is one of the…baptismal spirituals," he noted. “It shows the ingenuity of, or 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 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.

Learn more about Black history at our special section

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