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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Activities: Author Activities

Sorrow Songs - Author Questions

Back Back to Sorrow Songs Activities
  1. Comprehension: Paraphrase one of the Sorrow Songs in your own words, eliminating repetition and ambiguity whenever possible. Compare your version to the original and think about what has been lost in your "translation." Why do you think repetition is central to many of the spirituals? What is the effect of repetition in the songs?

  2. Context: In his Narrative, Frederick Douglass points out that slave songs reveal "at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness." What does he mean by this? Explain how a duality of expression and purpose inflects these songs.

  3. Context: How do the spirituals challenge and protest the institution of slavery? What is subversive in these songs? Why do you think white masters and mistresses for the most part missed the rebellious implications of this music?

  4. Exploration: How does the Sorrow Songs' use of Old Testament images--especially the image of the enslaved Israelites--compare to the New England Puritans' use of such images? Do the slave songs engage in a form of typologizing? Why or why not?

  5. Exploration: Listen to a recording of one or more of the spirituals. How do you think these songs influenced the subsequent development of American musical culture? What is the relationship between these early African American songs and subsequent African American musical forms, such as jazz, blues, and hip-hop?

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