Session 2

Slavery and its legacy: The bitterest anguish and freedom songs


Note: Most of this material is taken from the African American experience, but its universal themes also apply to the British Caribbean.


Some suggested background reading on slavery and Christianity, which we may refer to during the evening, is attached as a separate document. It’s written by a US academic and can also be found here online: Christianity and Black Slavery | Christian Research Institute (



A quote to set the scene, from Scottish author Jane Duncan, who lived in Jamaica in the 1950s:

‘Just as every human individual carries within him his steadily increasing tangle of memory, so do races and societies carry forward with them their history, the remembered experience of their forefathers. The race memory of the people of the West Indies was not long, as race memories go, for this was the memory of tribal people who some 200 years ago had been wrenched from their roots in their native Africa and transported in chains to these islands and into slavery. This memory was as sad and ugly as any race can drag behind it, a memory of enslavement, blood and cruelty at the hands of white men. The slave ships were the Dachaus and Buchenwalds of their day and the descendants of the people who had crossed the Atlantic in their stinking holds still had these ships and their fetters deep in their memory.’


Reflection for discussion:


In song, lyrics about the Exodus were a metaphor for freedom from slavery. Songs like "Steal Away (to Jesus)", or "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" raised unexpectedly in a dusty field, or sung softly in the dark of night, signalled that the coast was clear and the time to escape had come. The River Jordan became the Ohio River, or the Mississippi, or another body of water that had to be crossed on the journey to freedom. “Wade in the Water” contained explicit instructions to fugitive slaves on how to avoid capture and the route to take to successfully make their way to freedom. Leaving dry land and taking to the water was a common strategy to throw pursuing bloodhounds off one's trail. “The Gospel Train”, and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” all contained veiled references to the Underground Railroad, and "Follow the Drinking Gourd" contained a coded map to the Underground Railroad. The title itself was an Africanized reference to the Big Dipper, which pointed the way to the North Star and freedom.


Frederick Douglass, a former slave, wrote, "I did not, when a slave, fully understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was, myself, within the circle, so that I could then neither hear nor see as those without might see and hear. They breathed the prayer and complaint of souls overflowing with the bitterest anguish. They depressed my spirits and filled my heart with ineffable sadness...The remark in the olden time was not unfrequently made, that slaves were the most contented and happy laborers in the world, and their dancing and singing were referred to in proof of this alleged fact; but it was a great mistake to suppose them happy because they sometimes made those joyful noises. The songs of the slaves represented their sorrows, rather than their joys. Like tears, they were a relief to aching hearts."


(Taken from: African American Spirituals ( )


Jeffrey Russell, in our background reading, highlights Christian teaching against slavery and those Christians who opposed slavery.

But he concedes: ‘Though Christianity declared slavery immoral, many Christians preferred profit to moral theology.’ andOfficial and theological condemnations made little impact on a trade that was growing more and more profitable…’


What do we feel about those Christians who preferred profit? Those who endorsed slavery or ‘passed by on the other side’?

How should we lament the failings of the past and their legacy?

What does this mean for our quest for racial injustice and inclusion today?

What pressures are we under from systems and structures that still ‘prefer profit’?

Do we and/or our churches shy away from difficult issues?


Musical interlude:
Steal Away to Jesus
AA Spiritual: Steal Away to Jesus (



A Staffordshire connection: Am I Not A Man And A Brother

The Wedgwood medallion was the most famous image of a black person in all of 18th-century art. Josiah Wedgwood, Britain's renowned potter, was a man of conscience, deeply interested in the consequences of the American War of Independence and the French Revolution.

His friendship with Thomas Clarkson - abolitionist campaigner and the first historian of the British abolition movement - aroused his interest in slavery. Wedgwood copied the original design by the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade as a cameo in black and white. The inscription 'Am I Not a Man and a Brother? ' became the catchphrase of British and American abolitionists. Medallions were even sent in 1788 to Benjamin Franklin who was then president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society.

The image was widely reproduced on domestic objects like crockery and also became popular on fashion accessories. According to Clarkson, gentlemen had the image 'inlaid in gold on the lid of their snuffboxes. Of the ladies several wore them in bracelets, and others had them fitted up in an ornamental manner as pins for the hair. At length, the taste for wearing them became general; and thus fashion, which usually confines itself to worthless things, was seen for once in the honourable office of promoting the cause of justice, humanity, and freedom.'

Although the kneeling black figure is docile and supplicatory (reflecting nothing of the frequent fierce rebellions by enslaved people in the New World plantations), the image nonetheless helped to galvanise support for the abolitionist cause. Benjamin Franklin declared that the medallion's effectiveness was 'equal to that of the best written Pamphlet, in procuring favour to those oppressed People.' (from BBC - History - British History in depth: The Black Figure in 18th-century Art )


That phrase about frequent fierce rebellions leads us into our Bible study and all those times we are called not to be docile and supplicatory:


Howls of protest in Scripture


Psalm 22 v 1-19 (NRSV)

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?
2 O my God, I cry by day, but you do not answer;
    and by night, but find no rest.

3 Yet you are holy,
    enthroned on the praises of Israel.
4 In you our ancestors trusted;
    they trusted, and you delivered them.
5 To you they cried, and were saved;
    in you they trusted, and were not put to shame.

6 But I am a worm, and not human;
    scorned by others, and despised by the people.
7 All who see me mock at me;
    they make mouths at me, they shake their heads;
8 ‘Commit your cause to the Lord; let him deliver—
    let him rescue the one in whom he delights!’

9 Yet it was you who took me from the womb;
    you kept me safe on my mother’s breast.
10 On you I was cast from my birth,
    and since my mother bore me you have been my God.
11 Do not be far from me,
    for trouble is near
    and there is no one to help.

12 Many bulls encircle me,
    strong bulls of Bashan surround me;
13 they open wide their mouths at me,
    like a ravening and roaring lion.

14 I am poured out like water,
    and all my bones are out of joint;
my heart is like wax;
    it is melted within my breast;
15 my mouth is dried up like a potsherd,
    and my tongue sticks to my jaws;
    you lay me in the dust of death.

16 For dogs are all around me;
    a company of evildoers encircles me.
My hands and feet have shrivelled;
17 I can count all my bones.
They stare and gloat over me;
18 they divide my clothes among themselves,
    and for my clothing they cast lots.

19 But you, O Lord, do not be far away!
    O my help, come quickly to my aid!


From the Holy Week lament:


The roads to Zion mourn, for no one comes to the festivals;

all her gates are desolate, her priests groan;

her young girls grieve, and her lot is bitter.

Her children have gone away, captives before the foe.

Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?

Look and see if there is any sorrow like my sorrow.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God.


From on high he sent fire; it went deep into my bones;

he spread a net for my feet; he turned me back;

he has left me stunned, faint all day long.

For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears;

for a comforter is far from me, one to revive my courage;

my children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed.

Jerusalem, Jerusalem, return to the Lord your God.


2 Corinthians ch 6, v 4-10:

As servants of God we have commended ourselves in every way: through great endurance, in afflictions, hardships, calamities, beatings, imprisonments, riots, labours, sleepless nights, hunger; by purity, knowledge, patience, kindness, holiness of spirit, genuine love, truthful speech, and the power of God; with the weapons of righteousness for the right hand and for the left; in honour and dishonour, in ill repute and good repute.

We are treated as impostors, and yet are true; as unknown, and yet are well known; as dying, and see—we are alive; as punished, and yet not killed;  as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything.


Music and closing prayer

Swing Low Sweet Chariot AA Spiritual: Swing Low, Sweet Chariot (


We bring before you, Lord,

the tears of sorrow,

the cries for help,

the vulnerability of pain.

Lift from us our burden,

and in your power, renew us.


We bring before you, Lord,

our tears and frustration over closed minds and hardened hearts,

our feelings of powerlessness in the face of injustice,

our fears for the future.

Lift from us our burden,

and in your power, renew us.


God of the desolate and despairing,

your Son Jesus Christ was forced to carry the instrument

of his own death —

the cross that became for us the source of life and healing.

Transform us that you might be for us a fount of life

and a spring of hope;

though him who died for us,

yet is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,

now and for ever.