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Applying New Historicism to Spirituals

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  • Spirituals

    Slavery Painting

    How did slaves express forbidden feelings and desires, such as anger, resentment, or a longing for freedom?

    One way was through music and the use of coded language.  Like many people throughout history, slaves often sang songs to pass the time as they worked from dawn until dusk.  These songs relied heavily on African musical traditions, incorporating rhythm, call-and-response patterns, drumbeats (since most plantation owners prohibited slaves from using actual drums, many learned to make similar sounds with their feet), and banjos. The songs were called Spirituals and are apart of the Realist era.

    Because slaves were almost always in the presence of their white masters or overseers, they learned to disguise the true meaning of their songs, hiding politically-challenging content behind seemingly innocuous words.  Scratch beneath the surface of many of these songs, and you will find coded messages about plans to escape, directions for how to head north on the Underground Railroad, derisive comments about white people, and soulful lamentations about life under slavery. Using the New Historicism Theory, we can see this really well.

    Using New Historicism

    Let's look at the spritual "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot":

    Swing low sweet chariot
    Comin' for to carry me home,
    Swing low sweet chariot
    Comin' for to carry me home.
    I looked over Jordan, an' what did I see,
    Comin' for to carry me home,
    A band of angels comin' after me,
    Comin' for to carry me home.
    If you get-­‐a dere befo' I do,
    Comin' for to carry me home,
    Tell all my friends I'm comin' too
    Comin' for to carry me home.

    If you would like to hear an audio version of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," click this link:  "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot"

    We can use some of the questions New Historicists ask to help us view this from their perspective:

    What language/characters/events present in the work reflect the current events of the author’s day?

    • The Underground Railroad was prevalent during this time. Knowing this, we can think of the song as a reflection of that idea or event.
    How are such events interpreted and presented?
    • The event is described as sweet and the people involved to be angels. This lets us know that the author perceives it as good.
    How are events' interpretation and presentation a product of the culture of the author?
    • We know that the author was a slave. A slave during this time period would use the Underground Railroad for freedom and a way to break the bondage of slavery. His or her thoughts on the railroad would be positive then as the songs positive words reflect.
    Does the work's presentation support or condemn the event?
    • Since a slave would see the railroad as positive, it supports the event.


    In general then, a New Historicist would then say something along the following about "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot":

    Knowing the context of the piece the text takes on a deeper meaning than just a song about a chariot. Understanding the context of slavery lets us place the song in that same context, slavery, and knowing that the author is a slave, we can understand the piece to reflect how the system of the Underground Railroad would be viewed in a positive light by slaves.

    Works Cited

    Liberty Letters 24 August 2012