A. L. Morton

Promise of Victory:
A Note on the Negro Spiritual

What is the secret of the appeal which the negro religious songs have had for millions of people who cannot share the religious emotions they express, and have, perhaps, only the vaguest knowledge of the conditions under which they were created? It can only be, I think, that these songs say more than they appear to say, because they express some profound and fundamental human emotion common to a large part of the human race, and especially to that great majority which knows or feels itself to be exploited and oppressed.

Some of these songs have an obvious social or political meaning: ‘Go Down Moses’ and ‘Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho' need little interpretation, though it is interesting to note that according to William Patterson, a negro scholar and revolutionary, Moses was the code name of Harriet Tubman who first organised the ‘underground railway’ by which hundreds of slaves escaped into the free states of the north, and the singing of ‘Go Down Moses’ was a recognised signal that all preparations were completed for an escape. It is easy to see, too, how the history of the Jews, another enslaved and tormented people, afforded countless parallels for the negro slave. Not only Moses and Joshua, leaders of revolt, but the Messianic promise of Isaiah and the lamentations of the Babylonian captivity, David’s triumph over Goliath and the restoration of Judah under Ezra spoke directly of their own lot or held promises for the future. And, as we shall see, the passage over Jordan was not only the symbol of entry into a happier world after death. Jordan actually stood for the boundary line between the slave and the free states, and, less directly, for the ending of slavery altogether.

There is, indeed, a duality in religion which makes it under certain conditions a ground for battle between the ideologies of contending classes. The slave owner was not opposed to religion for his slaves: the picture of a meek and suffering Jesus quietly enduring wrongs had an only too obvious value. So also had the injunctions of Paul, concerned to secure a foothold for his religion by reconciling the slaves of the Roman empire to their condition, insisting that all that Christian brotherhood demanded was the mutual recognition of rights and duties by all classes within the existing framework of slave society. Yet in practice it was never possible to limit the religion of the slave to the passive acceptance of these convenient doctrines.

After all, the suffering Jesus was also the triumphant Jesus, the hero who even in the midst of his sufferings and humiliations was greater and stronger than his oppressors. And the slave, identifying himself with the Man of Sorrows, could not be prevented from interpreting his triumph in a more practical, a more earthly, sense than was conducive to his continued obedience. We are reminded of the slogan of the serfs, revolting in Medieval England: ‘We are men, formed in Christ’s likeness, and we are kept like beasts.’

Nor could his attention be fixed solely upon the New Testament, and we know, from the history of our country in the seventeenth century, what a veritable revolutionists’ handbook the Old Testament can become. Therefore it happened that, whatever his appointed teachers might say, the slave voiced in his religion, and above all in the religious songs in which the genius of his race found fullest expression, the whole character of his life and his unconquerable belief in his ultimate emancipation.

The people who sang:

Were you there, were you there,
When they crucified my Lord?

were thinking less of an atrocity committed outside Jerusalem two thousand years ago than of the lynching horrors they all knew and the bloody suppression of half a hundred slave revolts.

When I get to Heaven, goin’ to sing and shout,
There ain’t nobody goin’ to put me out,

is the cry of the people outside society, segregated and humiliated by the colour bar and the Jim Crow system. It is in the same song that the direct statement of triumph arising out of agony swells to the height of great poetry:

I know my robe will fit me well,
I tried it on at the Gates of Hell.

Here is the voice of a people which has suffered and endured to the utmost and which emerges with a sense that it has not been found wanting, which knows that it has come unbroken from the most terrible test that the malignity of man or devil could devise, and that therefore nothing it can be called upon to face need make it afraid. Here is the source of the dignity and assurance which we all feel to be the negro’s outstanding quality.

Sometimes the sense of agony is overwhelming: there is a work song addressed to the sun which begins: ‘Go down, Old Hannah, don’t you rise no more,’ which has always seemed to me to be one of the most terrible songs in the world. And in many songs the desire for peace and rest, even if it is the rest of death, is the dominant theme. This is natural enough for slaves driven to the limit under the plantation system, or for share-croppers equally trapped in the mechanism of capitalism. Yet it is just at this point that the strangest transformation takes place, and one which gives these songs their unique and final value.

For, in case after case, what is insisted upon is not the peace but the triumph of death. Death is not only the release of the victim, but the defeat of the oppressor. So that in ‘I Stood by de Ribber of Jordan’:

Now sister you’d better be ready
To see that ship come sailing over,
Now sister you’d better be ready
To see that ship come sailing by.
O sister, don’t you mourn
To see that ship sail by.

Or in a typical emancipation song:

Oh, Oh, Freedom, Oh, Oh, Freedom,
Freedom, Lord for me.
An’ before I be a slave
I’ll be buried in my grave,
An’go home to my Lord an’ be free,

it is hardly possible to say whether it is death or freedom or freedom in death which is the subject.

In a very real sense it is all three, and this is what gives these songs their extraordinary richness and depth. We feel that they exist on several planes at the same time, that the singer is aware of an opposition, which cannot perhaps be logically resolved but which is resolved emotionally. Death is a friend, death is welcome, death is freedom, death is triumph over the oppressor. And it is perhaps just when the exploited has reached this point, the point at which even life no longer matters very much, at which he will no longer fear what man can do unto him, that nothing remains to hold him back from the struggle for life. And so, by a final resolution, death is life. Certainly it is true that the tunes of these particular songs are quite exceptionally alive, and that in them words and tune are inseparable: without the tune the words are often poor and misleading. The tune always gives the words a more positive stamp than they would bear alone. The tune is always a part of the resolution.

It is, then, the absolute quality of these songs that gives them their mastery over the imagination. Verbal and rhythmic merits, though they are often considerable, are always subordinated and subsidiary to an intensity of feeling and purpose. They are the work of a people who have lived in the depths and emerged, the songs of the three holy children coming alive out of the furnace. In them misery and defeat and weariness and cruelty, and man’s last and greatest enemy, the fear of death, have been fairly encountered and overthrown. They are a new Pilgrim’s Progress composed in the more universal language of song. They are a proof of the indestructible goodness and power to survive and conquer which exists not only in the negro people but in all people everywhere. They give us a promise of victory in which we know we can have absolute trust.

1941, reprinted in Language of Men

SOURCE: Morton, A. L. (Arthur Leslie). “Promise of Victory: A Note on the Negro Spiritual,” in History and the Imagination: Selected Writings of A. L. Morton, edited by Margot Heinemann and Willie Thompson (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1990), pp. 252-255.

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