The chapter begins with a verse from a Negro spiritual. Du Bois writes that as he has been writing this book, the Sorrow Songs sung by slaves have haunted him. He has been familiar with such songs since he was a child, even though they came from the South. Du Bois repeats his claim that these songs are “the most beautiful expression of human experience” to come out of America. Some of the songs have been forgotten, and some were ruined by caricatures in Minstrel acts.
As an oral tradition, African-American spirituals are passed from person to person, meaning that tracing their exact origin is difficult and some have been lost and forgotten. This oral tradition creates a sense of community, connecting black people in the North (such as the young Du Bois) to the South and those in the present to their ancestors.
Du Bois tells of a man born in New York who served in the Freedmen’s Bureau, founding a Sunday school class for black children who he taught to sing. This group became the Fisk Jubilee Singers, who—despite economic and racial oppression—toured across the country and eventually the world. The press “sneered at them,” but their performances were so successful that they were able to bring back $150,000, which was used to found Fisk University.
Here Du Bois turns to one of the major contradictions in African-American history. Even while black musicians faceracist disdain, their music is enthusiastically consumed by white audiences. Although the Fisk Jubilee Singers are only one example of this phenomenon, it continues into the present day.
Du Bois argues that the spiritual is the “articulate message of the slave to the world.” He claims that the songs can seem like they imply that slaves were joyous and carefree, which may have been true of some but cannot have been true of all. In reality, the songs are the music “of an unhappy people,” and they express both the suffering of slavery and the hope of freedom. The music originated in the African lands from which the slaves were seized, and has traveled down through the generations for two hundred years.
During slavery, slave owners employed a range of justifications for the practice, including the idea that black people were happy to be slaves. Slave songs were sometimes cited as evidence of this. However, as Du Bois points out in this passage, the reality is that spirituals express the pain and despair—as well as the strength—of slaves.
Du Bois names the songs with which he begins each chapter of the book, claiming that the choice of these spirituals was somewhat arbitrary but that they do represent the progression of the tradition from African music to its current distinctly African-American form. Alongside this evolution, white people have developed racist “debasements and imitations” of the songs. Du Bois argues that the message of the slave contained within spirituals was inevitably “veiled and half articulate,” and sometimes contain phrases from unfamiliar languages. Almost all of the songs are religious and almost all are “sorrowful,” expressing longing for peace in the afterlife.
Du Bois shows that spirituals are an art form created entirely within and for the African-American community—yet they are still not untainted by racism, as white people have made offensive “imitations” intending to mock black people and culture. This again speaks to the burden of duality placed on black people; even when they create art forms not made for a white audience, the shadow of racism and the Veil is inescapable.
Spirituals frequently contain nature imagery, and the lyrics suggest a reflectionof the lives of slaves in the tumultuous, “mournful” natural world around them. The “shadow of fear” falls over the songs. Mothers and children are mentioned frequently, but fathers rarely, and the songs rarely feature stories of love and romance. Many songs depict mothers without their children, and death is not treated in a fearful way but as a return home. Much of the lyrics would have been improvised, and many are structured around fragments and paraphrases of the Bible.
Here, Du Bois develops his exploration of the different forms of kinship and family structure created through slavery. Whereas white popular songs focused on romantic love and would rarely mention the death of children, social conditions were very different for black people, particularly those living under slavery.
The songs do contain a sense of hope, a belief that justice will come, if not in this life then in the next. Du Bois wonders if this hope is justified. He notes that in the era in which he is writing, white people claim that other races have demonstrated their own inferiority, and are thus “not worth the saving.” Du Bois asks how white people can consider the US their own country, considering indigenous people were there before them.Since that point, white and black people have intimately coincided, and black people have worked, struggled, fought, and cared for whites. Du Bois asks what value these gifts have, and if America would be the country it is without black people. Still, through it all, black people remain hopeful, focusing on the future and the promise of freedom.
Throughout the book, Du Bois wonders whether black people will see justice both in the mortal world and in the afterlife. Even as his prose contains undertones of optimism, overall it is defined by an overwhelming sense of uncertainty. Although Du Bois makes a convincing case that racial progress is a matter of justice and that black people deserve better than their current lot in America, it remains very unclear whether the country will change for the better.