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Remembrance, Freedom, and Song

by Ruth Naomi Floyd




The journey, survival, resistance, resilience, protest, and creativity of the enslaved Africans in America possess the courageous passage from deepest despair to defiant joy. As with all history, the history and music of the enslaved Africans in America have human life, faces, and spirit.


The African American Spirituals were the creation of the African prisoners of the forced labor system in America. From Africa, the enslaved Africans in America brought their musical instincts, talents, and traditions. They used their primary native African rhythms and, out of that, created the African American Spirituals. The African American Spirituals are the musical expressions of the quest for dignity, equality, and freedom. African American Spirituals included religious and work songs, field hollers, and chants.


The Great Abolitionist Frederick Douglass stated: “Slaves sing most when they are most unhappy. The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.” 


From the outset, enslaved Africans in America were deprived of their languages, families, and cultures. Yet, in the midst of great sorrow and deepest despair, with no liberation in sight, these dehumanized, oppressed, and abused African captives lifted their heads, composed songs, opened their mouths, and sang. The transformative power of this music embodies the values of dignity and the fight for justice and equality. In their bondage, these men and women expressed their journey through their creativity in musical expression. They composed a body of work that birthed the Blues, Ragtime, Gospel, Jazz, Rap, and Hip-hop and has deep roots in Pop, Country, Rock, and more.


Freedom arrived, and finally, Juneteenth arrived. The National Museum of African American History and Culture shares the history of Juneteenth:


“On 'Freedom’s Eve,' or the eve of January 1, 1863, the first Watch Night services took place. On that night, enslaved and free African Americans gathered in churches and private homes all across the country awaiting news that the Emancipation Proclamation had taken effect. At the stroke of midnight, prayers were answered as all enslaved people in Confederate States were declared legally free. Union soldiers, many of whom were black, marched onto plantations and across cities in the south reading small copies of the Emancipation Proclamation spreading the news of freedom in Confederate States. Only through the Thirteenth Amendment did emancipation end slavery throughout the United States.


But not everyone in Confederate territory would immediately be free. Even though the Emancipation Proclamation was made effective in 1863, it could not be implemented in places still under Confederate control. As a result, in the westernmost Confederate state of Texas, enslaved people would not be free until much later. Freedom finally came on June 19, 1865, when some 2,000 Union troops arrived in Galveston Bay, Texas. The army announced that the more than 250,000 enslaved black people in the state were free by executive decree. This day came to be known as "Juneteenth" by the newly freed people in Texas. 


The post-emancipation period known as Reconstruction (1865-1877) marked an era of great hope, uncertainty, and struggle for the nation as a whole. Formerly enslaved people immediately sought to reunify families, establish schools, run for political office, push radical legislation and even sue slaveholders for compensation. Given the 200+ years of enslavement, such changes were nothing short of amazing. Not even a generation out of slavery, African Americans were inspired and empowered to transform their lives and their country.


Juneteenth marks our country’s second Independence Day. Although it has long celebrated in the African American community, this monumental event remains largely unknown to most Americans. The historical legacy of Juneteenth shows the value of never giving up hope in uncertain times.”


History shows us that freedom is not free. After Reconstruction, Jim Crow laws were imposed following the ratification of the 13th Amendment. The burden of this "newfound freedom" shifted the music of African Americans, and the Blues were born. 


The African American Spiritual "Oh Freedom" emerged after the Civil War. Its poignant lyrics, steeped in grief and a yearning for complete freedom, reflect the struggle for dignity and the unwavering hope that sustained the community in the fight for equality and justice. 


Oh, Freedom!

Oh, freedom, Oh, freedom!

Oh, freedom over me

And before I'd be a slave

I'd be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free.


No more weepin' 

No more weepin' 

No more weepin' over me

And before I'd be a slave

I'd be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free.


They’ll be singin’

They’ll be singin’

They’ll be singin’ over me

And before I'd be a slave

I'd be buried in my grave

And go home to my Lord and be free.


Remembering this history means acknowledging and honoring the past, learning from these historical events, and ensuring that the lessons of the past are not forgotten. Remembrance preserves collective memory and understands past generations' sacrifices, struggles, tribulations, and triumphs while recognizing historical events' impact on our present and future. Remembrance helps create empathy and resilience and reminds us that human experiences shape our community, world, and future. When we don't tell the historical truth, we lose the opportunity to witness and share God's redemptive beauty.


The enslaved Africans survived the harsh system of slavery, and yet it did not kill their music. In the midst of the darkest time in American history, there was beauty. There was redemption. The prophet Zephaniah tells us that God sings over us with joy. Our singing God took something horrific and made beauty out of it. Beauty was redeemed, and God did it through song.


 

Read this article from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg Newsroom to learn about the complicated history, significance, and celebration surrounding the struggle for freedom.  


Ruth Naomi Floyd is a vocalist, composer, flutist, educator, independent historical researcher, photographer, and justice worker.


Photograph: “Yet Alive” © Ruth Naomi Floyd Images

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