Music, Art And Revolution: The American Civil War
African American people were once treated and seen as objects. Prior to and during the era of the American Civil War, these people were ostracized and forced into slavery, due to their foreign skin and their societal inferiority. Political and societal unrest ensued. The United States had divided into two sides, the Confederate States and the Union States, and the Civil War that followed marked the beginning of a revolution. The suffering and racism entwined with this revolution are specifically seen through “Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg” by Winslow Homer, and literature by Frederick Douglass, alongside countless “negro spiritual” songs and music. Thus, it is through black music and black portrayals in artwork where we can accurately picture the complexities and the devastating mistreatment of African American people.
Slavery began out of colonist’s desire to obtain profit. Historian Peter Kolchin even describes slavery as “entrenched in pervasive– and in many colonies [a] central– component of the social order, the dark underside of the American dream.” The American colonies were greedy and eager to boost their economy and material profits yet did not have a substantial workforce, and so they imported hundreds of thousands of indigenous African people against their will. These people were considered property, and thus they were never considered equal, so much of their hardships were never documented and lost to history. However, history is not solely documented and understood through written means: it is also told through music.
Many of the black slaves in America sang during their workdays in the fields. These songs often were instances of creative freedom and connection to their homeland, where they could express their heritage, religion, and their emotions freely, or even just to kill their boredom. Songs were passed down through generations of families, and thus these songs remain as an accurate depiction of slavery written and told by African Americans. It is through these songs where we can get a more valuable insight into the conditions slaves endured.
Work songs were sung in call-response form, involving a large variety of people, and could even be used to announce certain events such as mealtimes or the end of work. The slave’s owners were often appreciative of the work songs, as their purpose was “to coordinate the labor of a group of people working together, which improves the efficiency of the work, and to relieve the boredom of a tedious job, which improves the [morale] of the workers.”
It is through song that memories stay alive, and African Americans today can remember their history. Much of the words they sang and music they played were direct reflections of their experiences, unwritten by the hands of their oppressors, and often disguised to articulate sufferings too taboo to discuss. Scholar and musical instrument historian Laurent DuBois describes this phenomenon,
“This kind of accumulation of song and memory was particularly powerful in context of social oppression and control, where as Scott Reynolds Nelson notes ‘coded language’ was often used to speak of experiences of violence and suffering that were too dangerous to articulate openly.”
One such example of this type of “coded language” as Laurent DuBois and Scott Reynolds Nelson suggests is a ‘negro spiritual’ song titled “Steal Away”, written and composed by Wallace Willis, a black slave, before 1862. African American slaves were subject to religious conversion to Christianity as they were migrating to America, and thus many of the songs they sang were Christian in nature. “Steal Away” is no exception, though its message has always been understood to be a coded message. The promise of freedom and escape through the Underground Railroad (a series of people and connections that helped slaves flee) was deeply embedded into the lyrics of this song:
“Steal away, steal away, steal away to Jesus
Steal away, steal away home,
I ain’t got long to stay here”
The New Jersey Historical Commission describes these lyrics in context with the Underground Railroad: “The phrase ‘steal away’ thus meant absconding; ‘Jesus’ and ‘home’ symbolized the yearned for freedom in the North; and the words ‘I ain’t got long to stay here’ meant that flight northward was imminent.”
African American slaves were desperate for revolution. They craved their freedom and even risked their lives while traveling through the Underground Railroad. They turned to music and writing to alleviate their burdens, as seen in the case of Frederick Douglass.
Writer and activist Frederick Douglass, a free black American, recounted much of his hardships through his writing. His most famous works were his autobiographies, the first of which is titled Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: an American Slave. This book is understood to be one of the most important and impactful pieces of abolitionist literature in the mid-1800s. In his book, Frederick Douglass writes,
“My long-crushed spirit rose, cowardice departed, bold defiance took its place; and I now resolved that, however long I might remain a slave in form, the day had passed forever when I could be a slave in fact.”
Douglass continuously proved through his writing that he was a living counterexample of the narrow-minded and pro-slave ideology that black people could never have the mental capacity to function as intellectual Americans. He was a freed slave and did everything in his power to bring the suffering of slaves to justice.
The injustices of slavery did not go unnoticed. By the early 1860s, the American Civil War sparked a revolution of freedom, to no longer enslave African Americans. The Union in the North had been separated by seven “slave states” in the South when their state governments had seceded from the United States. They became the Confederate States of America and joined in retaliation to fight for slavery against the Union. Dr. James McPherson states, “While the Revolution of 1776-1783 created the United States, the Civil War of 1861-1865 determined what kind of nation it would be.” Ultimately, the Northern victory of the war in 1865 determined that slavery would be a violation of the fundamental idea that all men were created equal.
Confederate troops in the South were outnumbered, so many slave owners had decided to send their African American slaves to fight as soldiers. American painter Winslow Homer depicts one of these enslaved African American soldiers on the Confederate side, painted with exaggerated features and playing his banjo, in his painting Defiance: Inviting a Shot Before Petersburg from 1864.
This painting ultimately depicts the main figure, a soldier brazenly standing before armed Union soldiers to entice action, with the rest of his battalion waiting in the trenches. Much of this war was waiting for others to incite the violence, so large periods of silence ensued. Peter H. Wood and Karen C.C. Dalton explain in the context of this painting that “Idle shouts and banjo music provided respite from agonized stretches of attentive stillness.” In this scene, the African American playing the banjo is being seen as a means of entertainment during the war. Some may argue that this character is a white person wearing blackface. Whether or not this is true, many scholars agree that this image is “an embarrassment” to Winslow Homer.
Historically, both the Union and Confederate soldiers were subject to racism through entertainment: the Northern loyalists entertained themselves with minstrelsy. Slave-owners themselves considered a slave to be more valuable if they could sing and dance. Written in a vocabulary that supposedly captured black vernacular speech, Orlando Kay Armstrong transcribes an interview from an ex-slave “Jolly old Uncle Buck” in his book Old Massa’s People:
“Dat nigger wid de banjo settin’ on the bench waitin’ to be sold, he plunk his banjo. Den he rattle inter a real chune. Hi-yo! Fred ‘gin ter shuffle roun’ on his big feet an’ fine’ly he cain’t stan’ it no longer. He gotta dance… De white man what bought Fred say he done paid hundrert dollars mo’ fo’ dat nigger cause he could dance like dat!”
African American slaves were treated so unjustly that they were reduced to objects, and their creative musical talents were considered assets. Unfortunately, even after the Civil War had concluded and slavery had been abolished, African Americans were still discriminated against, and their likeness was considered “pathetic” and “savage”.
It took many years for the black people of America to fully regain the same rights as other Americans- Frederick Douglass himself famously said: “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.” It took even longer for black women to be considered equal; it was in 1920 when the 19th Amendment was ratified and women were given the right to vote. The challenges and hardships of African American people will never be forgotten. It is through music, art, and revolution that their history will live on.