Simple Songs of Freedom
by Randall E. Auxier
This is an illustration from the “slave narrative” (some people don’t like that label) of Solomon Northup. He was a free black from Saratoga Springs, NY, kidnapped in Washington D.C. in 1841 and sold into slavery in Louisiana. He barely avoided becoming strange fruit, when he refused to accept lashes and fought back. Not many slaves survived that. Eventually he was delivered to freedom by legal orders from the North. His book became a valuable first-hand testament regarding the conditions and lives of slaves in the South. Most tellingly, he wrote:
“I can speak of slavery only so far as it came under my own observation . . . my object is to give a candid and truthful statement of the facts; to repeat the story of my life, without exaggeration, leaving it for others to determine, whether even the pages of fiction present a picture of more cruel wrong or severer bondage.”
Northup alludes to Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s book, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a huge and important bestseller published the year before (1852). The market for narratives like Northup’s was created by the timing and popularity of that bit of fiction. It was both good and bad. It called attention to the plight of the slaves and built sympathy for emancipation. But it also commodified suffering, while providing motive to sensationalize such suffering for the white readers who were gobbling up the stories. Some were enjoying it a bit too much, others getting misleading ideas. The national debate (among whites) included many who insisted that blacks were happy as slaves, or at least better off. Northup tells of slaves he had encountered and spoken with in Saratoga Springs, and while they seemed to him well dressed and decently treated, all expressed their wish for freedom.
The scene above was interdicted by an overseer named Chapin, but Northup still spent a full day, tightly bound, lying in the hot sun. In the famous film version, the writers added a Hollywood exaggeration to the situation, having our hero spend the full day with a noose around his neck and having to stand on tiptoe to remain unhanged and breathing (please notice the complete absence of music in this depiction). This isn’t what happened, but enough others were lynched along the way to justify the filmatic reach. While describing his day of lying in the sun, bound and despairing, Northup addressed the whites who believed the slaves were better off:
Never did the sun move so slowly through the heavens . . . as it did that day. What my meditations were . . . I will not attempt to give expression to. Suffice it to say, during the whole long day I came not to the conclusion, even once, that the southern slave, fed, clothed, whipped and protected by his master, is happier than the free colored citizens of the North. . . . There are many, however, even in the Northern States, benevolent and well-disposed men, who will pronounce my opinion erroneous, and gravely proceed to substantiate the assertion with an argument. Alas! they have never drank, as I have, from the bitter cup of slavery. (pp. 120-121)
These autobiographical contributions to literature are also theoretical and ethical arguments, contributions to American philosophy, to the political thought of the world, containing not just subjective narration, but theoretical and reflective reasons to adopt as true some propositions and reject others as false. The first person perspective does add an individual element to the evidence, and Northup acknowledges that he cannot generalize beyond his experience. But his experience is evidence, and far moreso than the sentiments aroused in and by Stowe’s fictionalization, however well her signs and meanings may have been arranged. But Northup bore in his body what Stowe’s characters bore only in her imagination.
In the condition of slavery, civilized norms did not hold sway. Exercises of power were the basis of interaction, and a great silence was enforced between the oppressors and the oppressed. The film version of Twelve Years a Slave captures this silence as surely as Solomon Northup was captured. If song ever broke through that silence, it did so in defiance of death and the culture of death that was invited into our national life by the profound sin of chattel race-slavery. That it was a sin no one now denies. But, as Angela Davis so aptly points out, the Americans have never found a language for talking about slavery. For that reason slavery continues in our culture of incarceration and the innumerable lead lynchings, justified under the color of law enforcement.
But if we have not learned to talk about it, I believe we have learned to sing about it. That doesn’t change or do much to challenge the injustice, but it isn’t nothing. Here is something you probably didn’t know: slaves were not actively converted to Christianity until the late 18th century. After all, if they were allowed to share a religion with their masters, would they not be equals in the eyes of God? Would they not share with their “masters” the most profound kind of connection humans ever share, a religious and spiritual community? Is worship not the breaking of silence and the arrival of communication, community, communion, believer to believer, sharing the most sacred truths? Religious consciousness was surely a threat, but worship, as communication, as breaking the silence, was something the masters couldn’t control. Still, by the 1840s, it was widely regarded as shameful not to raise slaves in the Christian faith. Low denominations, poor Baptists and Methodists, zealously went into the slave quarters and preached.
The outpouring of emotion and the descending of the spirit upon the people during worship, apart from being a great equalizer, was an impetus to expression, to song, to piercing the silence with the soul and its cry. It cries for mercy, for salvation, and yes, also for joy. But the songs were going to include freedom songs, whether it was “Go Down Moses,” in all its subversive glory, or the redemption song of the Rasta Men. Even the stumbling, embarrassing effort of Bobby Darin was made inevitable. No, he doesn’t get it. He’s a bit like the overseer who saves Northup, but then leaves him in the sun all day. But he’s trying. Freedom is hard to grasp. Northup and others understand and forgive. Some white folks really want to get it. But alas! They haven’t drunk from the cup. I haven’t. Contemplate this image.