“Dere’s no rain to wet you, Dere’s no sun to burn you, Oh, push along, believer, I want to go home.” The bowed and bent old man cries, with thrice-repeated wail:
“O Lord, keep me from sinking down,” and he rebukes the devil of doubt who can whisper:
“Jesus is dead and God’s gone away.” Yet the soul-hunger is there, the restlessness of the savage, the wail of the wanderer, and the plaint is put in one little phrase:
Over the inner thoughts of the slaves and their relations one with another the shadow of fear ever hung, so that we get but glimpses here and there, and also with them, eloquent omissions and silences. Mother and child are sung, but seldom father; fugitive and weary wanderer call for pity and affection, but there is little of wooing and wedding; the rocks and �the mountains are well known, but home is unknown. Strange blending of love and helplessness sings through the refrain:
“Yonder’s my ole mudder, Been waggin’ at de hill so long; ‘Bout time she cross over, Git home bime-by.” Elsewhere comes the cry of the “motherless” and the “Fare-well, farewell, my only child.”
Love-songs are scarce and fall into two categories — the frivolous and light, and the sad. Of deep successful love there is ominous silence, and in one of the oldest of these songs there is a depth of history and meaning:
A black woman said of the song, “It can’t be sung without a full heart and a troubled sperrit.” The same voice sings here that sings in the German folk-song:
“Jetz Geh i’ an’s brunele, trink’ aber net.” Of death the Negro showed little fear, but talked of it familiarly and even fondly as simply a crossing of the waters, perhaps — who knows? — back to his ancient forests again. Later �days transfigured his fatalism, and amid the dust and dirt the toiler sang”
“Dust, dust and ashes, fly over my grave, But the Lord shall bear my spirit home.” The things evidently borrowed from the surrounding world undergo characteristic change when they enter the mouth of the slave. Especially is this true of Bible phrases. “Weep, O captive daughter of Zion,” is quaintly turned into “Zion, weep-a-low,” and the wheels of Ezekiel are turned every way in the mystic dreaming of the slave, till he says:
“There’s a little wheel a-turnin’ in-a-my heart.” As in olden time, the words of these hymns were impro-vised by some leading minstrel of the religious band. The circumstances of the gathering, however, the rhythm of the songs, and the limitations of allowable thought, confined the poetry for the most part to single or double lines, and they seldom were expanded to quatrains or longer tales, although there are some few examples of sustained efforts, chiefly paraphrases of the Bible. Three short series of verses have always attracted me, — the one that heads this chapter, of one line of which Thomas Wentworth Higginson has fittingly said, “Never, it seems to me, since man first lived and suffered was his infinite longing for peace uttered more plain-tively.” The second and third are descriptions of the Last Judgment, — the one a late improvisation, with some traces of outside influence:
“Oh, the stars in the elements are falling, And the moon drips away into blood, And the ransomed of the Lord are returning unto God, Blessed be the name of the Lord.” And the other earlier and homelier picture from the low coast lands:
“Michael, haul the boat ashore, Then you’ll hear the horn they blow,
Then you’ll hear the trumpet sound, Trumpet sound the world around, Trumpet sound for rich and poor, Trumpet sound the Jubilee, Trumpet sound for you and me.” Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope — a faith in the ultimate justice of things. The minor cadences of despair change often to triumph and calm confidence. Sometimes it is faith in life, sometimes a faith in death, sometimes assurance of boundless justice in some fair world beyond. But whichever it is, the meaning is always clear: that sometime, somewhere, men will judge men by their souls and not by their skins. Is such a hope justified? Do the Sorrow Songs sing true?
The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization. So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of “swift” and “slow” in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should AEschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born? Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa? So long as the world stands meekly dumb before such questions, shall this nation proclaim its ignorance and unhallowed prejudices by denying freedom of opportunity to those who brought the Sorrow Songs to the Seats of the Mighty?
Your country? How came it yours? Before the Pilgrims landed we were here. Here we have brought our three gifts and mingled them with yours: a gift of story and song — soft, stirring melody in an ill-harmonized and unmelodious land; the gift of sweat and brawn to beat back the wilderness, conquer the soil, and lay the foundations of this vast economic empire two hundred years earlier than your weak hands could have done it; the third, a gift of the Spirit. Around us the history of the land has centred for thrice a hundred years; out of the nation’s heart we have called all that was best to throttle and subdue all that was worst; fire and blood, prayer and sacrifice, have billowed over this people, and they have found peace only in the altars of the God of Right. Nor has our gift of the Spirit been merely passive. Actively we have woven ourselves with the very warp and woof of this nation, — we fought their battles, shared their sorrow, mingled our blood with theirs, and generation after generation have pleaded with a headstrong, careless people to despise not Justice, Mercy, and Truth, lest the nation be smitten with a curse. Our song, our toil, our cheer, and warning have been given to this nation in blood- brotherhood. Are not these gifts worth the giving? Is not this work and striving? Would America have been America without her Negro people?