Coded Messages in African American Spirituals

Many people have an image of African Americans during slavery as passive victims of an evil trade, however they were not passive at all.  There was actually a strong resistance to the dehumanizing situation and some of the key remnants of this resistance are African American Spirituals.

Originally during slavery Africans were not allowed to practice their own religions because their religions were deemed evil.  They were also not allowed to practice Christianity because they were not seen as equal humans.  Eventually protestant Christians evangelized the enslaved Africans and they began to personalize their own expression of Christianity.

Aside from having very spirited services that helped give strength to the faithful, the African American church services had a separate function as well.  Titles and lyrics of the spirituals were used as code to let other African Americans know what was being planned.  Some of the coded titles include:

"Wade in the Water": by wading in the water of rivers, those who were running away could hide their scent from dogs that were used to track them down.

"Follow the Drinking Gourd": the drinking gourd is an African reference to a gourd but it also refers to a dipper used for drinking water.  The title refers to the Big Dipper constellation.  The Big Dipper was used at the time to find the North Star and for those escaping slavery, north is where they wanted to go as slavery was abolished in the northern states.

"Steal Away": when this song was sung it was a message that they are going to run away.

"Swing Low Sweet Chariot": this song referred to the Underground Railroad that led many slaves to freedom.  It is curious that “chariot” rhymes with Harriet Tubman who was the organizer of the Underground Railroad. 

"There’s a Great Camp Meeting in the Promised Land":  this of course meant that there would be a meeting that night.

In the midst of slavery many enslaved African Americans used coded survival tactics to help liberate themselves despite the many odds stacked against them.  Music was one of the tools used and some of the most well-known spirituals were actually coded messages that helped those seeking freedom get to the promised land of the northern free states.

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