African American Oral Traditions

African American Oral Traditions:

In African-American culture, oral tradition has been passed down in the form of stories and songs. The negro spirituals would not only be songs of prayer and deliverance from sin, but also contained double meanings which other slaves would understand as prayers for literal freedoms from the bondages and miseries of slavery. When slave populations were converted to Christianity, many blacks heavily identified with the Moses and the story of Exodus, believing that they too would eventually be emancipated from servitude by the power of God. Many of these songs are still sung today, one in particular, Wade in the Water is my paternal grandmother’s favorite. According to my father, she would sing it when she bathed me as a baby. My favorite has to be one that most Americans are familiar with: When the Saints Go Marching In. E’ah explained to me how it spoke of Christ’s Second Coming. The “saints marching in” were those Christians who were to be taken up with Jesus as he brought them into heaven. “Lord, how I want to be in that number” was the singer’s expression of hope that they would be among the saints to attain eternal life. I would always be puzzled by a certain verse she would sing: “Oh when the moon shines red with blood”. Later I would come to find out that this refers to the eclipses St. John writes about in the Book of Revelations. I have fond memories of mother and maternal grandmother (Nana) singing hymns such as Leaning on the Everlasting Arm and The Lord is Blessing Me. I like to think foundation of my deep Christian faith is built in part on the words that my grandmother used to sing with such joy: “He woke me us this morning, and started me on my way. The Lord is blessing me right now. Oh! Right now!”


J.S. recalls the various oral traditions he is familiar with, with regards to African American culture, as well as his Christian beliefs. He mentions the songs that have a close connection in the hearts of his family members, and himself. I believe that it is a very normal phenomenon to reconcile one’s cultural beliefs with one’s spiritual beliefs, and there are few better ways to accomplish that than with songs.