It is well documented that the foremost preoccupation of enslaved Africans in the New World was freedom, the thing that was most denied them. That is why so many resisted their social condition, whether passively or aggressively. The Negro Spirituals speak about the community’s yearning to be free. Even a hint of that desire could lead to punishment by their slave masters. So, the enslaved became quite adept at using metaphors in their music to give voice to the sentiments of their hearts. These “coded messages” imbued the religious folk songs of the enslaved with great meaning, especially for those “in the know.”
Perhaps the second most frequently mentioned subject in the spirituals is heaven. This is not surprising, as heaven also symbolized freedom. This “end of life” destination for Christians was a place where the tortured and mistreated slaves would enjoy relief from their earthly torment and labor. In heaven, God would receive them and welcome them. Heaven is a beautiful place where not only their humanity would be recognized, but they would be treated well and live like royalty, draped in robes reserved for kings and queens and bestowed with a crown and sandals for their feet as they trod across golden streets.
There were other code words that have literal and metaphoric meanings. Canaan, the biblical promised land, was also a promised land to the enslaved. It not only represented the Christian heaven, it was also used as a code word, an alliteration, to represent Canada, the farthest north slaves could hope to achieve freedom, far from the oppression of the south. The city of heaven, Jerusalem, and Beulah or Beulah Land were also biblical locations that represented both heaven and freedom in the spirituals. In the case of Beulah, it is the promise of land restored to the Israelites after exile and a return to home. Home also represents freedom in the Spirituals.
I spoke with CPR Classical Program Director Monika Vischer for our yearlong Journey to Freedom collaboration, about the anticipation of heaven and freedom present in the spirituals I chose for June, “In That Great Getting’ Up Morning.” The literal meaning of the text speaks about waking up in heaven and bidding goodbye to this earthly existence and to those that remain on earth. There is great joy and exhilaration expressed in the song, anticipating the joy that awaits those going to heaven. Likewise, the enslaved anticipate a time of great rejoicing when they arrive in heaven, or Beulah Land.
Monika and I also discussed the influence of the camp songs from the early 19th century. This was a time called the Second Great Awakening – a Protestant revival which consisted of preaching and singing. Many of the enslaved were present during these services and privy to the songs sung and sermons preached.
One song is “Way Over In Beulah Land.” It is likely that the enslaved community heard this song and internalized the joy expressed in the song lyrics, speaking of a day when the redeemed will enjoy the blessing of heaven. Not only did they internalize the fervor of the hymn, but they also adapted its meaning and gave it voice in their own language and culture…
"Way over in Beulah Lan’
We’re gonna have a good time…"
This spiritual expressed the anticipated joy of heaven, the freedom there and the freedom here in this life, in this world. The verses go on to describe what life will be like in heaven, as the enslaved experience the joys denied them while oppressed…
"Oh, we gonna walk dem golden streets.
Oh, we gonna drink of de Heavenly wine."
In heaven, not only will they be able to satiate their thirst, it will be quenched with a drink of luxury; wine. And not just ordinary wine, Holy wine. On earth they were forced to live as peasants and slaves. In heaven, they will be treated to extravagance and laden with good things. They will walk on golden streets, free, whether in this life or the next. And when they get there, they will certainly have a good time!
M. Roger Holland joins CPR Classical as co-producer of Journey to Freedom: The Spirituals Radio Project, a yearlong exploration of African American history and culture through spirituals. Holland will select and write about a new spiritual each month throughout 2021. Each will air during regular programming on CPR Classical, including Sunday mornings on our choral music show Sing! from 6 to 10 a.m.
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