Longfellow’s “The Slave Singing at Midnight”: A White Man’s Depiction of the Enslaved in 1842

by Kathryn Bauer

America, as a new nation, struggled to find unity as a result of the peoples’ immense divide over the institution of slavery.  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem, “The Slave Singing at Midnight” assists readers in understanding the progression of an emergent American cultural voice away from the institution of slavery and moving towards abolishment, while still illuminating the inequality faced by the enslaved, due to White American’s ignorance.

While on a trip home from overseas, Longfellow crafted, “The Slave Singing at Midnight”, as part of a thirty-page pamphlet, composed of eight poems focused on the abolishment of slavery.  Ironically, Longfellow’s work encompasses a focus on an enslaved person, despite the fact it is written by Longfellow, a White American male.  The poem commences with the enslaved person singing Biblical psalms from The Old Testament:

“Loud he sang the psalm of David!/ He, a Negro and enslaved,/ Sang of Israel’s victory,/ Sang of Zion, bright and free” (Longfellow 1-4).

At a time when Blackface was heavily present in America, it was commonly believed that enslaved persons simply sang jolly tunes for amusement, Longfellow represents a common White American, as he acts shocked of the religious content of the enslaved person’s song as shown by his use of an explanation point after, “Loud he sang the psalm of David!”.  The mention of the psalm of David, a piece of religious text from The Old Testament, in which it is stated that God is always present and protecting over his people, depicts that enslaved persons utilize song, much differently from how Longfellow, and other White Americans believe.  Enslaved persons use the inspiring stories of “Israel’s victory” and “Zion”, the Holy City, and later in the poem, from The New Testament, the story of “Paul and Silas”, in which the suppressed group puts their faith in God and is, in turn, is victorious over their oppressors.  This illustrates how the enslaved persons sang songs as a way to demonstrate their faith and the hopefulness of freedom they contain at this time in America, a very different fact from the common White American’s belief.

Additionally, the poem, written in 1842, encompasses characteristics of the late 18th, early 19th century style of Romanticism, centering on the imagination and emotions.  Longfellow concentrates on the inner world of himself, as well as the enslaved person:

“And the voice of his devotion/ Filled my soul with strange emotion;/ For its tones by turns were glad,/ Sweetly solemn, wildly sad” (Longfellow 13-16).

The enslaved person’s dreams of freedom and hopefulness resulting from organized religion is depicted by “the voice of his devotion”.  The idea that this voice prompts Longfellow to feel “solemn” and “sad”, rather than share the hopefulness of the enslaved person, suggests that the ideals of freedom and equality for enslaved persons at this time in America are still not yet present.  The extreme juxtaposition of emotion between the two very different individuals, highlights the lack of understanding of the enslaved person from the White Man, in this case and on a much grander scale.

As America is becoming a prominent nation, it is still being restrained by its racial ideologies.  The theme of hopefulness, not just that the new nation will succeed, but also in the view of the enslaved persons for equality and freedom, as a result of the close connection between religion and abolishment, illustrates the cultural values of the emergent American voice.  In Longfellow’s poem, the cultural vales are depicted through the main focus and content of the poem: the enslaved person singing of inspiring Biblical pslams, and the Romantic style, which depict the attempts of the growing understanding and acknowledgement of the enslaved persons by White Americans.  The Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, is on the horizon for the American people, and Longfellow’s, “The Slave Singing at Midnight” shows that America is making large strides in the right direction, leading up to this major decision.

 

the lord and jordan

Howard Finster’s 1976 enamel painting, “The Lord Will Deliver His People Across Jordan”, showcased at The Smithsonian American Art Museum, is a perfect representation of the ties between religion and abolishment, as well as the theme of hopefulness.  The Lord is depicted in this image delivering Joshua and the Israelites from their oppressors through their devotion to Christ.  The Lord’s followers encompass a parallel suppression to the enslaved persons in growing America at the time of Longfellow’s poem in 1842.  Taking a close look at the painting, strong diction, “Brutes”, “Killing” and “Hate”, are painted in the lower half of the painting, illustrating the struggles of Joshua and the Israelites while oppressed.  In early America, White Americans share this same adverse diction toward the enslaved persons, due to their ignorance of the enslaved persons knowledge and understanding, restricted through a racial lens.  Moreover, God is presented in the image as a passageway for Joshua and the Israelites into a land of “Kindness”, “Love”, and “Peace”, present on the upper half of the painting, representing God’s deliverance.  This is comparable to the enslaved person’s belief that if he sings these songs of faith, he too will be delivered, from enslavement.  Lastly, in the center of the painting, “Things must be better just over Jordan…I want hafto cross Jordan alone… The Lord will deliver his people across Jordan”, symbolize the idea of hope, Joshua and the Israelites, as well as the enslaved persons, all, share the belief in the saving power’s of religion.  The have faith that their situation will better through the works of religion.  

 

Works Cited

Fisher, Miles. Negro Slave Songs in the United States. Read Books Ltd., 2013. 1-20. Print.

Longfellow, Henry, Wadsworth. “The Slave Singing at Midnight” Poems on Slavery.            Cambridge: John Owen, 1842. Print.

McKivigan, John R. “Revival Religion and Anti-Slavery Politics” History of the American Abolitionist Movement. Garland Publishing Inc., 1999. 379-391. Print.

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