The Negro-Spiritual is a genre in music, created by Black slaves before emancipation, and which has endured. As you know, Frederick Douglass’ textbook was the Bible. The Bible is not easy to read but it offers a “paradise lost,” a very humble saviour who rewards those who are in pain. Such themes are precious to oppressed people. Heaven also offers winged beings: angels. They can fly, which one cannot do if one is in shackles. Uncharitable owners kept their slaves in shackles or punished them by putting them in shackles. It was extremely painful and it could break a person’s body. The word anamnesis is linked to the Negro-Spiritual. One goes back in time and remembers that there is a promised land.
The poor, or those whose life has been broken, know they will be saved. Life eternal awaits them and those who suffer often commit suicide. There is life eternal and they may be reborn. Rebirth is a central theme in world literature and the arts. Nature awakens when Spring arrives. Those who cannot read know that there is a circle and a cycle. Vivaldi’s Four Seasons makes so much sense. The fourth movement contains a restful melody. In Winter, nature rests. The music suggests a form of suspension.
John Milton’s Paradise Lost is also Paradise regained. The desperate poets of 19th-century France looked upon man as remembering paradise. He cannot, therefore, find a comfortable place on earth. Baudelaire’s Albatros looks clumsy on the deck of ships. Sailors laugh. In full flight, he is divine. This is a powerful image. Le Souvenir, remembering is an important theme in 19th-century French literature, beginning with Lamartine. Le Lac is an essential poem. Lamartine has lost the woman he loved. She has died, but he asks nature to remember. To be remembered is an option. My favourite line in Lamartine is:
Un seul être vous manque, et tout est dépeuplé ! (L’Isolement)
[Only one being is missing, and all is gone!]
Black slaves turned to religion, mixing the music of Western Africa and Christian themes. (See Negro Spiritual, simple English, Wikipedia). It is music one sang while working. The voyageurs of New France sang as the paddled their Amerindian birch bark canoe. One had to be a singer to be hired. The favourite song of voyageurs was À la claire fontaine. It ended with the words I will never forget you: Jamais je ne t’oublierai.
The Blacks also knew French fables based on Reynard the Fox. These are told in Uncle Remus, by Joel Chandler Harris. Such narratives can be seen as African-American, because Br’er Rabbit, brother rabbit, outfoxes the Fox. He is the trickster. Yet, Uncle Remus bears considerable resemblance to Reynard, the trickster. Many Acadians deported in 1755, made their way to Louisiana. They walked through Georgia. They had lost everything. Some walked back to Acadia. However, their land had been settled by the British. I gave a paper on Reynard, in Hull, England, in 2001. I saw the tombs of my husband’s ancestors at Beverley Minster. David died in August 2001.
Black slaves found sustenance in the Bible, and created a repertoire of songs that speak to the soul. The negro-spiritual is one of the United States’ most important legacies. It is unique and expresses both despair and hope.
Love to everyone 💕
© Micheline Walker
16 August 2020