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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas

Conversion to Christianity
Enduring Hardships
Religious Services
Preaching to Enslaved Africans
Slave Religion in Central and South America

Captive Passage
has been made
possible in part by:
National Endowment for the Humanities
Recognition of
additional sponsors
for this exhibition
can be found by
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Arrival: Life in the AmericasPreference for AfricansThe Slave Markets
European RewardsSlave Populations in the AmericasThe Ships Return to EuropeEconomics
Sugar IntroductionSlavery in North AmericaReligionSilver Mines of South America


The enslaved Africans' religion, not contained to the church building, expressed itself in other aspects of life. Perhaps the most important of these are the songs that came to be known as spirituals. Spirituals combined the sacred texts of scripture and of older hymns with veiled references to the hardships and joys of slave life. The combination was powerful, and it became one of the first truly American art forms. Vinnie Brunson, a former slave, described the spirituals clearly in 1937:

Hit is de niggers mos' joy, an his mos comfort w'en he needs all dese things. Dey sing 'bout de joys in de nex' world an de trouble in dis. Dey first jes sung de 'ligious songs, den dey commenced to sing 'bout de life here an w'en dey sang of bof' dey called dem de "Spirituals."

The spirituals were able to express a wide range of emotions. Enslaved Africans used them for the expression of joy, for comfort in times of sorrow, to signify outrage and sadness, and even to convey secret messages. One of the reasons for the spirituals' versatility is their improvised nature. Music was very much a part of everyday culture, so the slaves would sing while they were working, while they were playing, and while they were worshipping. Enslaved Africans would take a verse from the Bible, or a snatch of a hymn that they had heard in church, and set it to an improvised melody. This might become the chorus for a new spiritual. One slave, the leader, would sing it and the others would repeat after him in a pattern of call-and- response. Verses would then be added, concerning whatever the leader wanted to sing about. New verses were constantly being composed for old spirituals, in much the same way that new spirituals were. Thus the spirituals were a constantly growing art form and one that took its shape from the community that created them.

Spirituals were sung about a variety of subjects, but there were certain themes that kept appearing. The first is that of sorrow and loss. The slaves had to deal with death, the threat of being sold, and the horrors of the owners' cruelty on a daily basis. Thus, in the spiritual "Lord, I Cannot Stay Here by Myself," the slaves sang:

My mother has gone and left me here,
My father has gone and left me here,
I'm going to weep like a willow
And mourn like a dove,
O Lord, I cannot stay here by myself.

But the horrors of slavery also gave the slaves incredible strength and powerful faith. Their fortitude can be seen clearly in spirituals like "You Got A Right."

You got a right, I got a right,
We all got a right to the tree of life.
Yes, tree of life.

The very time I thought I was lost,
The dungeon shook and the chain fell off.
You may hinder me here,
But you can't hinder me there.
'Cause God in the Heaven's
Going to answer my prayer.

This strength due to faith was often all that kept the enslaved Africans going in their most troubled times. At these times, they looked to their Biblical heroes for inspiration and strength. The three heroes who appeared the most often were Jesus, Moses, and Daniel. Jesus was the savior of the world, the one who would end all of their troubles. Moses was the deliverer of the Israelites, the one whom God had appointed to bring freedom from slavery. And God saved Daniel, persecuted for his faith, from the jaws of the lions. These three became the greatest heroes of the spirituals, representing God's redemptive power and justice, the ideal of liberation, and the principle of faith even in the face of death.

One of the most fascinating aspects of the spirituals was the way that they were used to convey messages. Some spirituals, like "You Got a Right," were clear in their messages of liberation. But the owners often forbade the singing of this type of song. So the slaves invented codes to discuss the forbidden topics. For example, Israel would represent the slaves, and Moses would represent a leader or deliverer. Egypt, or sometimes even Hell, would be the South. Pharaoh would be the owner. The River Jordan would be the Ohio River or some other river in the North. The Promised Land, Heaven, home, or Canaan could all represent the North. Shoes, wheels, trains, or anything else that was a symbol of movement were symbols for escaping from slavery. Using these symbols, slaves could discuss forbidden subjects, and convey messages to fellow slaves, without fear of owners understanding them.

The spirituals were folk art in the truest sense. They were created by a particular community, for use by a particular community. They were not intended for performance on stage, but rather for use in everyday life. There were no famous composers, but a community who created them collectively. The spirituals grew within the community, forever changing to meet the community's needs. Yet the spirituals grew beyond their particular communities. The spirituals are now recognized as one of the greatest contributions to American culture as a whole.