Freedom, abundance and ‘somebodiness’ for enslaved Africans ‘In Bright Mansions Above’


I frequently teach about Negro Spirituals at the University of Denver. In fact, this quarter I am teaching a course titled, “The Spirituals and the Blues.” The idea for the course came from a book of the same name, written by one of my former professors, James Cone. In his book, Cone discusses extensively how the Spirituals served to sustain and empower the enslaved African community and helped them not only to endure slavery, but to find ways to actively resist their oppressors. And for many to even secure their freedom. The Spirituals were living documents of the lives and sentiments of the Black community under slavery. Likewise, Cone describes the blues as “secular spirituals” which also convey the lived experience of Black people in America, in all of its fullness. In my class, we listen to and explore this rich music and the ways in which it tells the story of Black people in America.

One of the things we discuss in the class is the primary theme in spirituals: freedom. This should come as no surprise; the thing slaves were denied most is what they most desired.

But there are other themes we discuss, as well.

One theme in particular is the idea of longing for worldly possessions. Again, a desire for something they did not possess. In the spiritual “Ain-a That Good News” the enslaved sing about items of clothing (i.e., a robe, a crown). In similar spirituals they may sing about shoes, wings, or a home.

That’s not surprising. It was standard practice at the beginning of the year to grant the slave one shirt, one pair of pants, a coat, perhaps, and maybe a pair of shoes. Shoes were considered a luxury. Some were lucky to receive a couple of each of these items or maybe a little more. They were expected to make these items last for the entire year. If you’ve ever seen pictures of slaves, you’ve probably noticed that their clothes were usually worn, tattered, and torn. They had patches, and the appearance of overuse.

In the spirituals, the enslaved not only sang about the possibility of owning decent clothing, but imagined possessing clothes that represented royalty. The robe they sing about is a royal robe, the kind that would be worn by kings and queens. That’s why they also sang about receiving a crown. Wings are the reward of angels in heaven.

They believed that when they arrived in heaven they would be greeted and welcomed by God. They would be treated not only like royalty, but also with love, while also affirming their humanity, or as my former professor, James Cone would say, their “somebodiness.” If they could not be free in this life, they would be free in the next. If they could not receive the basic necessities like food, clothing and shelter in this life, then they would have it in the next, when they got to heaven.

Many of the spirituals also reflect scripture found in the Bible. Most slaves were illiterate, but there were some who did learn to read and write, either by their own ingenuity or due to the kindness of some white person who believed that keeping Blacks illiterate was unjust. In the case of the latter, it was most assuredly done in secret, since a white person would be subject to consequences as much as the slave for teaching a Black person to read and write. While there were likely some Black preachers who were literate and preached from a Bible in secret meetings that took place in hush arbors, it was more common that those who preached did so from memory of what they had heard prior, an example of oral tradition.

So, it is likely the enslaved would have heard a portion of scripture in the New Testament where Jesus tells his disciples, “In my Father’s house there are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” (John 14:2 KJV). The spiritual, “In Bright Mansions Above” is reflective of that sentiment.

One of the things the enslaved were denied was a decent place to live. Their rickety shacks provided little protection from the elements. Is it any wonder they would have longed for a better place to live, and not simply a nice house, but a mansion? A mansion that Jesus himself promises is waiting for them and that Jesus guarantees to prepare for them ahead of time.

In bright mansions above,
In bright mansions above,
Lord, I want to live up yonder,
In bright mansions above.

My mother’s gone to glory,
I want to go there, too.
Lord, I want to live up yonder,
In bright mansions above.

There’s an arrangement of “In Bright Mansions Above” by Roland M. Carter. Carter added the portion of scripture from John’s Gospel (mentioned above) that is the scriptural foundation for this spiritual. It is set as a quasi-recitative or chant. In classical music it might be referred to as choral sprechstimme, or “sung speech.” The sopranos hold the last word of the sung refrain on a single pitch while the rest of the choir intones (chants) the scriptural text. It is a heavenly moment in Carter’s arrangement that is nothing short of transcendent. Whether one is treated to Carter’s arrangement of this spiritual or some other version, the sentiment is clear – denied proper housing in life, the enslaved held onto the promise of Jesus: a mansion awaited them in heaven above.

M. Roger Holland, II is Teaching Assistant Professor of African American Music and Theology at the University of Denver’s Lamont School of Music, and Director of DU’s Spirituals Project Choir.

Listen to Professor Holland’s monthly musical selections and commentary throughout the year on CPR Classical, including Sunday mornings on our choral music show Sing!, hosted by David Ginder.

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