All deep things are Song,” wrote Thomas Carlyle in Heroes and Hero-Worship. “It seems somehow the very central essence of us, Song; as if all the rest were but wrappages and hulls.” “See deep enough,” he continued, “and you see musically.”

The “deep things” prod us to sing. So we understand the singing of Paul and Silas in a dank, dark jail at Philippi; so we understand Jesus’ singing a portion of the Hallel with his disciples in their meeting that night before the Day of the Cross. So we also understand the praise-filled chant of the psalmist, “He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God” (Ps. 40:3a, RSV): this was after he had been drawn “up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog” (v. 2), and his steps made secure. All men suffer. All men sing. Song shows the soul as “blue” or blessed. Our singing is our faith—or our sense of fate.

Realizing this, we sense the character of the Negro spiritual. These songs witness to faith in God. They show a creative adjustment to a life that could have soured the soul. They speak from a dignified depth of spirit that refused to believe life was without a managing God. These songs are “profiles in courage.”

Need we remind ourselves of how they arose? The spirituals arose in hearts made bold by God to sing against a background of continuing crisis. They are songs in the night: the night of slavery for a disinherited people snatched from their homeland, transported in irons across a wide ocean, and thrust into a hard life in a new world. Behind them was their native land, their cherished traditions. Before them was the cruel treatment of men who regarded them not as men but as flesh-and-blood machines. As weary decades dragged by, the slaves were forced to struggle for an ...

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