Literacy, History, and African American Spirituals

By Karen Cook Bell | Black Perspectives

In his 1935 interview with Alan Lomax and Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Quarterman, a ninety-one-year-old formerly enslaved man, shared a spiritual that expressed the discursive realities of enslavement. Legally denied literacy, African Americans developed a dynamic oral discourse through both slave songs and the performance of orality.

Collectively, African American spirituals privilege the “voice of the unwritten self” as an authentic voice of enslaved African Americans who were denied the ability to write down and thereby preserve their thoughts in physical documents. As a subjective discourse that existed outside of writing, African American spirituals were much more than an outlet for intense emotions. These spirituals challenged prevailing interpretations of the Bible and enslavers’ portrayal of spirituals as undignified and unimportant.

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