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The Legacy of Negro Spirituals

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that “Ride On” was their favorite song performed by the Kuumba Singers, I would have a lot of nickels. If you’ve ever been to a Kuumba performance, you know that there is just something about the Negro spiritual—something indescribably moving, inescapably enticing, and unbelievably powerful—that leaves the room breathless. But Negro spirituals have been thrilling singers and audiences alike long before the Kuumba Singers first made them a staple on Harvard’s campus in 1970.

Today the spirituals continue to have a special relationship to the African-American community, not as a historical artifact but as a living symbol. The spiritual is the foundation upon which all other distinctly African-American forms of music, from jazz to rhythm and blues, have been built. While we have certainly come a long way, ongoing forms of discrimination and prejudice continue to make suffering, and a belief in the an eventual alleviation of that suffering, still a very present part of the African-American experience. That experience is told through the spirituals.

Spirituals date back to the days of American slavery, when slaves turned to their newly acquired religion, Christianity, for comfort. A musical and religious people, the slaves incorporated their new source of hope and strength into their music in what we now call “spirituals.” The spirituals expressed the belief that one day, they would be released from the chains of slavery and allowed to live freely again, if not in this life then in the afterlife. This music combined unique African rhythms and harmonies with Western elements creating a sound that is often called the first music native to America.

One particularly distinctive element of the spiritual, and many subsequent forms of Black music, is “call-and-response.” Call-and-response is just what it sounds like: within a song, the leader sings one line and the other singers repeat or respond to that line.

For instance, in “Guide My Feet,” another spiritual often sung by Kuumba, the entire song is composed of the soloist singing “Guide my feet,” “Hold my hand,” or various other requests followed by the choral response, “While I run this race.” On the surface this structure may seem repetitive, but when sung, it creates a powerful motif of unity and a joint plea to God flung up to heaven by the slaves.

And because like the slaves, the ancient Israelites of the Bible had been oppressed, analogies between slaves’ plight and that of the Israelites became a prevalent theme in Negro spirituals. For instance, the spiritual, “Go Down Moses” directly appealed to this similarity of experience.

The Negro spiritual is not just a sorrow song but also contains an irrepressible sense of triumph and a belief that in the end, “everything is gonna be alright.” This brings us back to the Harvard campus favorite, “Ride On,” which implicitly taunts the slave-owners who think they will forever be able to exert their control over the slaves, saying, “One of these mornings and it won’t be long; you’re gonna look for me and I’ll be gone.”

Furthermore, as the director of the Kuumba Singers, Sheldon K. X. Reid ’96-’97, has often told us, “Black people aren’t the only people who have ever suffered.” The beauty of the spirituals is that every one of us can relate to them in some way because we have all, at some time in our lives, felt down and out. For this reason, even if Kuumba never sang another one, the spirit of the Negro spiritual would continue live on as vibrantly as it does now.

Kamala S. Salmon ’03 is a government concentrator in Mather House. She is the librarian of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.

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