African American spirituals originated through an amalgamation of African religion and music with the Christian religion of slave owners and
Christian hymns. Slaves were not allowed to worship by themselves; therefore, they used the traditions of their culture, blending them with the hymns taught them in the white churches.
Spirituals were sung in a call and response manner or as a “shout,” which resembled traditional African dancing. According to negrospirituals.com, shouts were held after regular religious services. They were an ecstatic experience with the music and dancing building to a fervor where, “Women screamed and fell. Men, exhausted, dropped out of the ring."
African American spirituals as we know them today began in the early 1800’s. Slaves who had been brought to Christian churches learned how God had set the captives free. They incorporated this hope for freedom in the songs they sang by using the words heard in the churches.
During the time of slavery as well as after, the songs held messages that covertly related information to the African American community. Words and phrases carried specific meaning, such as “home,” which meant a place of freedom or “The Gospel Train,” which was understood to mean the Underground Railroad.
Later, during the early 1900s, spirituals began to be used as hymns of praise. They soon began to relate to the troubles experienced by African Americans during their struggle for Civil Rights.
A simple lesson plan can be formed around the spiritual, Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.
- To enable students to understand and appreciate the nuances of language within an African American Spiritual
- To have students learn and sing a spiritual with feeling and understanding of the words
- To learn how culture influences music
- Discuss with students what they know of African American history
- List any spirituals they may already know
- Discuss symbolism within spirituals
- Hand out the lyrics to Swing Low, Sweet Chariot
- Ask students to reflect on the lyrics
- Ask what this spiritual refers to in the Christian context
- Ask what it refers to in the context of slavery
- Ask what it refers to in today’s context
- Have students sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot as a call and response, using the line, “Swing low, Sweet Chariot” as the response - also, sing it as a traditional hymn
- Discuss if there was a difference to how the song sounded/felt to them
- Students will write a reflection on what they learned
Assessment: Students will be assessed on their active participation during discussions, and the reflective essays.
African American Spiritual Resources
Resources for teachers creating a lesson on African American spirituals can be found at -
- PBS.org. African American World.
- NegroSpirituals.com. Songs.
- NationalHumanitiesCenter.org. African American Religion.
Photo Credit: Wikicommons