Du Bois, The Negro Spiritual, and Political Representation

By: Jared Silverstein

At the turn of the 20th Century, American sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois composed his seminal work The Souls of Black Folk, in which the chapter entitled “The Sorrow Songs” grapples with the long-debated theme of black musical expression and its intentional or unintentional impact on social and political perception. The sorrow songs of which Du Bois writes are the melancholy albeit optimistic Negro Spirituals, stemming from the work songs and Christian hymns sung during the Slave era (Brown 45).

The latter half of the 19th Century revealed a highly complex mechanism by which black music was critiqued, appropriated, and exploited in the commercial atmosphere. Not only was the African American’s artistic endeavor exploited, but it was consistently perceived and generalized as a political attempt to influence the public’s perception of black culture as a whole, which in some cases it certainly was; in other words, racial perception was inseparable from individual artistic expression (Gilbert 44).

During this time, renowned American songwriter Stephen Foster popularized the sentimental ballad song form among common American households, which was often secular though sometimes directly taken from Church hymnals (Key 153). As his compositions became staples of contemporary minstrel shows, Foster was crucial in first altering the public’s view of African Americans, as the minstrel songs transitioned from a folk and rural influence to one stemming from European classical ballad styles (155). This effectively stirred black sociologists and musicians alike to critically assess what music was being played, and how it would be perceived by the public in relation to the African American community.

At a time when black popular songwriters such as Ernest Hogan were institutionalizing white supremacy with hit minstrel songs such as “All Coons Look Alike to Me,” the popularization of Negro Spirituals represented a more constructive intention among black musicians to represent their people in a positive political light (Gilbert 28).

Music educator James Monroe Trotter in Washington D.C. envisioned the African American’s path to validation and equality as being paved by the demonstration of technical mastership of one’s instrument and theoretical knowledge of European classical styles. He denounced the use of spirituals as an appropriate method for representing the modern self-disciplined black American, as he feared they would only perpetuate the stereotypes of blacks being overly passionate and emotional (Gilbert 36).

Du Bois’ writing is an endorsement for the use of the Negro Spiritual as a means of accurately portraying the authentic black American experience:

And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas” (The Souls of Black Folk).

He sees spirituals as a sonic extension of a people fighting for their citizenship, lamenting over the injustices of the past, as opposed to an uncouth song form that simply lacks the technical virtuosity of something more closely affiliated with the European classical tradition.

The content of the spirituals themselves dealt largely with existential despair, plight, and varied religious aspects, which are themes that when popularized and made explicit among the general public would reshape the attitude towards African Americans into one of empathetic understanding and universal inclusion, Du Bois hoped. He speaks of the themes present in the spirituals, writing:

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 (The Souls of Black Folk).

Du Bois was compelled to mention the Fisk University Jubilee Singers here, as they were an instrumental organization in spreading the sound of the spiritual to audiences across the world. While this represented an unprecedented achievement in portraying the authentic history of the Black American, the fact that the Jubilee Singers were presenting these folk songs in the style of classical European choral music was an aesthetic element that at this time did not go without critique.


Fisk Jubilee Singers. Courtesy of Kalam.com. Here the original Jubilee Singers from Fisk University are shown in formal European attire posing for what would be used as a press photo for their upcoming American tour.


A prevailing theme at this time in the dilemma of black expression and social representation was the extent to which black musicians should rely on appealing to Eurocentric ideals of high-art to appear sophisticated in the eyes of whites. Composer and instrumentalist Will Marion Cook was someone who had his own struggles and reservations regarding this. As someone who had studied European techniques with Czech composer Dvorák, Cook often necessarily flaunted his credentials and classical training in order to secure performance opportunities at major concert houses (Gilbert 26).

As his career progressed, Cook, like Du Bois began to see the importance of an authentic, though not fetishized, portrayal of Negro folk culture by means of the Spiritual. While both men considered the act of relying on European classical techniques to demonstrate the intelligence of the musician dubious, they agreed that it should not entirely be dismissed. Rather, doing so intelligently broadens the spectrum of those who will even pay mind to the music itself in a discriminating commercial marketplace.

The success and recognition of the Fisk Jubilee Singers exemplified the perfect extent to which the public would receive a blend of folk elements and European sophistication. Though regardless of either methodology used to influence the public’s perception of black Americans, caricature portrayal and minstrel shows continued to undermine the political effort (39). As Du Bois notes:

Caricature has sought again to spoil the quaint beauty of the music, and has filled the air with many debased melodies which vulgar ears scarce know from the real” (The Souls of Black Folk).

Here Du Bois points to the fragility of the positive perception whites can have of African Americans, as their ignorance of their own country’s past and impressionable minds do not allow them to discern between authentic black tradition and simple commercial exploitations. It is as critical as ever to understand the way in which miscegenation and political agenda influence social perception during a modern age, and Du Bois was certainly keen of this at the turn of the 20th Century.


Brown, Sterling. “Negro Folk Expression: Spirituals, Seculars, Ballads and Work Songs.” Phylon (1940-1956) 14, no. 1 (1953): 45-61.

Gilbert, David. “A New Musical Rhythm Was Given To The People: Ragtime and Representation in Black Manhattan.” In The Product of Our Souls: Ragtime, Race, and the Birth of the Manhattan Musical Marketplace, 16-46. University of North Carolina Press, 2015.

Key, Susan. “Sound and Sentimentality: Nostalgia in the Songs of Stephen Foster.” American Music 13, no. 2 (1995): 145-66.

XIV. The Sorrow Songs. Du Bois, W. E. B. 1903. The Souls of Black Folk. Accessed December 20, 2017. http://www.bartleby.com/114/14.html.

The Civil War and the Black American Experience: A Disconnect

By: Jared Silverstein

Slavery cannot be discussed without observing the horror that it culminated in, that being the Civil War. Likewise, a discussion on the Civil War without full comprehension of the institution of slavery, and America’s economic dependence on it, is a one-sided discussion. In modern America, the nation is still struggling to reconcile the common devastation felt after the War with much subtler, and unfortunately ignored, aspects of Civil Rights and the Black experience. Although the harsh themes of death present in Faust’s book propose that there is a commonality to the suffering amongst all who fought in the war, and that it could be possible to unite as a nation in reverence for the human lives that were lost, the stark dichotomy of American beliefs during the time regarding the treatment of African Americans must not be obscured.

In the wake of the Civil War, Americans were forced to come to terms with devastation on such an unprecedented scale, to make sense of a seemingly futile battle waged for reasons that were not always apparent, that the very underpinnings of human psychology were rigorously tested. Drew Gilpin Faust, in This Republic of Suffering, redefines the image of the War through the perspective of death, and all that accompanies it. Whether it was the need to prepare oneself for an impending death, coming to grips with the loss of a loved one, or contemplating the presence of God’s will amidst such tragedy, people undoubtedly had to grapple with their own faith, beliefs, and perceptions of life

Going into the war as a divided nation, both psychologically as well as socially, Americans had a tendency to develop modes of rationalizing their losses that were in alignment with the prevailing sentiments of their regional culture. It is clear today that the prevailing form of southern commemoration is centered on sentiments of pride in those who fell fighting for states’ rights. While there is certainly much positivity to be found in a community that honors the valor demonstrated by their ancestors, pride must never prevent an objective and critical analysis of the War itself, in an attempt to arrive at a more empathetic and multi-faceted perspective on how the War affected all lives.

Faust depicts a story of the War in which dying soldier anxiously professed their faith in the hopes of salvation; where fathers carried the bullet that killed their sons until the day they too passed; where both Union and Confederate families struggled in vain to understand why their sons had perished for an unclear cause; and where human beings lost their personhood as they lay dead among the thousands, unburied. Perhaps the recognizing of this deep pain experienced by all families helps us to not approach commemoration form a point of nationalist pride, but from a perspective of human empathy and understanding, which then directly translates to the often avoided acknowledgment of the true Black experience during this time in America.

civil war graveSeen here in New Brunswick’s Elmwood Cemetery is the McIntosh family grave plot. John McIntosh served as a brigadier general in the Union Army during the civli war, while his brother Jame McIntosh served as a brigadier general in the Confederate Army. A memorial such as this grave plot that encapsulates this interesting story is one that allows someone to approach the War from a point of critical understanding. What was the underlying psychology in the family that tore it apart? What motivated James to fight for the Confederate Army? It is impossible to gloss over these questions under the spell of blind national pride because such a memorial compels one to seek further knowledge. (Photo by Jared Silverstein).

Faust illustrates how this Southern method of commemorating the war exclusively through the perspective of pride came to be:

Joseph Jones counted soldiers and their deaths both to demonstrate southern valor and to explain the defeat of the hopelessly outnumbered Confederacy. Regimental commanders counted to tell the story of “how well [their unit had] stood. 259

This gives one a sense that Confederate pride was arbitrarily established out of hopelessness in an effort to justify the incomprehensible deaths of such a massive scale of people. In the modern era, it must be realized that notions of pride somewhat serve as a crutch, allowing some to pay no mind to the harsh reality of the Confederacy: the war was being waged to uphold the institution of slavery. The reality of the true Black American experience becomes obscured and ignored when the method of commemoration is only at the surface level of pride. As Frederick Douglass is quoted in the book:

“I shall never forget the difference between those who fought for liberty and those who fought for slavery.” 269

The Confederate War memorials in the South are essential capsules of American history. For those who have relation or sentimental attachment to the figures in the monuments, Americans have every right to feel pride in those who fought for what they believed. The pain and discomfort that such memorials cause African Americans greatly outweighs the nostalgia for a better time felt by those in favor of the memorials.

confederate monumentThis Confederate memorial in North Carolina is one that romanticizes the bravery and honor of those soldiers who fought to defend their families and homes from the invading Union Army. To this day there is still strong feelings of pride associated with the confederacy among southerners, and even on the memorial there is language invoking the theme of love. But does this monument not leave further questions to be asked? It is as if an entire side of history, that being slavery during this time, is simply ignored when it comes to commemorating the War in the South. (The “Confederate Memorial” in Wilmington, NC depicting Gabriel James Boney Born Wallace courtesy of UNC).

While people should certainly be able to revere whomever they choose and for any reason, it is imperative that modern people, particularly the youth, stay informed about the total reality of the past. A proper form of commemoration involves recognition of all facets of history, even the harder ones to reconcile. Not only is this Confederate Memorial shown above a one-sided depiction of the past, but it is also offensive to those who are associated with this ignored history. America will not be able to come together as a nation until all people approach the past and the present from a point of empathy and informed understanding.

Faust’s approach to the Civil War through very humanizing themes such as death, killing, burying, and believing allows one to appreciate and grasp the magnitude and horror of the War as an entity in and of itself that deeply affected the nation. It is this newfound understanding that should be extended to the Black experience throughout the history of America, not kept separate from it.


Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. Alfred A.    Knopf, 2012.

The Paradoxical American Individual

by Jared Silverstein

In the course of daily activity, the values instilled in an individual regarding family, work, and community go largely unquestioned. How do people obtain their values, and from what traditions do they arise? At the time Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote Self-Reliance, America was only in its 65th year as a nation, and with a budding society there follows many perspectives an individual can adopt to partake in such a society. During this period in Antebellum America, a common theme was arising in every facet of culture. Whether regarding literature, legislature, or religion, the prevailing American discourse implied “…the assertion of the worth of the totally liberated, atomistic, autonomous individual” (Ward 1974, 13). But with the emphasis on the individual pervading and influencing the entire society, a highly complex relationship between the individual and the nation forms. Alexis de Tocqueville very accurately assessed this complexity, bringing attention to “…the dialectic between the subjection of the individual to the national ideal and the subsequent celebration of the aggrandized self” (Haselstein 1998, 406). Tocqueville also details the uniquely American phenomenon of the market driven individual not seeing the natural landscape of the country as an aesthetic subject, but that of representing economic profitability; it follows that the Transcendental reaction to this in which the sublime is recognized in the landscape is also uniquely American (406). With this growing confusion among the American citizen as to his relationship with the nation, Emerson’s impetus for writing Self-Reliance becomes clear, as does the explanation for its provocative, persuasive, and unwavering tone. Emerson establishes in Self-Reliance the full-blown war between the divinity of the individual soul and the conformist demands of American market capitalism.

Society everywhere is in conspiracy against the manhood of every one of its members. Society is a joint-stock company, in which the members agree, for the better securing of his bread to each shareholder, to surrender the liberty and culture of the eater. (3)

Emerson explicitly takes an almost combative stance against the corporate nature of American society, as he perceives it to be a direct assault on the purity of individual expression, as well as masculinity itself. Much of the content in Self-Reliance can be generalized as Emerson urging the individual to reject all notions of traditional values, and instead act upon his own convictions arrived at by aligning himself with the purity of God.

… Yet when the devout motions of the soul come, yield to them heart and life, though they should clothe God with shape and color. (7)

This stress on the unassailable nature of God’s will extends from traditional notions of the American sublime, which itself is a long-standing albeit dynamic ideology, established “…to cover the entire historical space from Puritanism to Postmodernism” (Haselstein 408). Along this religious thread, Emerson details the behavior of the truly sovereign individual in relation to the family, asserting that monogamy is presumed to be virtuous (14). Despite Emerson’s constant attack on those who follow faith blindly, condemning ill-motivated philanthropy in previous passages, the religious values so deeply entrenched in the American mind seem to arise in Emerson’s declarations. The virtues that Emerson instills in the image of the self-reliant individual at times seem arbitrary in this manner.

Transcendentalists at this time reclaim the American sublime in poetics, and a prevailing notion of that ideology is how the self becomes fully realized in perceiving the boundless and infinite nature of the American landscape as well as the entire cosmos (Haselstein 412-6). Emerson’s writing serves to effectively portray this uniquely American interpretation of the sublime, writing:

For, the sense of being which in calm hours rises, we know not how, in the soul, is not diverse from things, from space, from light, from time, from man, but one with them, and proceeds obviously from the same source whence their life and being also proceed. (10)

Even more fittingly, Emerson urges the consideration of the self-sufficing nature of the maturing plant, self-righting tree, or budding flower as examples by which people can derive their own notions of self-reliance (13).

The Beeches - Asher Brown Durand

 The Beeches – Asher Brown Durand. Here, the better portion of the painting is devoted to a dark portrayal of a natural setting, contrasted with a lone shepherd, illuminated by a seemingly divine light. Durand illustrates the duality of the American sublime, complementing the venerable work of the fittingly self-reliant shepherd with the romantic mysticism of the environment, almost as if it imbues him with a greater spiritual significance. The distant extent of the horizon also serves to create a boundless scope to man’s existence, very much in alignment with Emerson’s vision.

Another aspect of Self-Reliance­ is the emphasis on productivity and legacy. When arising from conformist motivations, these are the very facets of corporate American ideology Emerson aims to critique. Emerson defines a clear correlation between self-sovereignty and doing productive work, in particular original work done to a grand extent, writing, “But do your work, and I shall know you. Do your work and you shall reinforce yourself” (5). He also goes on to advocate “…tossing the laws, the books, idolatries, and customs [of the nation] out the window,” and by doing this the individual will “…restore the life of man to splendor, and make his name dear to all history” (15). As market capitalism in American was taking root, “It seemed to offer a good compromise individualism that allowed coordinated force and personal greatness” (Newfield 1991, 664). From Emerson’s perspective, personal greatness is hollow when motivated by the prevailing economic and material interests instilled by the nation’s dogma; he aims to reassert the more honorable motivations of the self-sovereign individual into productivity (15).

As Emerson grapples with the concept of the American individual, the complexity of the subject becomes apparent, for Emerson could not arrive at his conclusions without being influenced by the very sentiments present in the society he is critiquing. Perhaps he would not so strongly emphasize the intrinsic need to produce great works in one’s lifetime if he was not born from a society that already stressed such virtues when it came to a collective duty. From the clear religious, agrarian, and capitalist themes present in Self-Reliance at its time of writing, an emerging uniquely American voice can be discerned.




Emerson, Ralph Waldo, 1803-1882. Self-Reliance. White Plains, N.Y. :Peter Pauper Press,  1967.

Haselstein, Ulla. “Seen from a Distance: Moments of Negativity in the American Sublime (Tocqueville, Bryant, Emerson).” Amerikastudien / American Studies 43, no. 3 (1998): 405-  21.

Newfield, Christopher. “Emerson’s Corporate Individualism.” American Literary History    3, no. 4 (1991): 657-84.

Ward, John William. “Individualism: Ideology or Utopia?” The Hastings Center Studies 2,        no. 3 (1974): 11-22.



The Faith of a Woman: a Slave Narrative of Love, Despair, and Atonement

By: Jared Silverstein

If one should take away anything from the story of former slave Bethany Veney, it is that the most complex nuances of social perception, and heart-wrenching aspects of human existence, can all be found in the seemingly humblest of livelihoods. Her short yet powerful narrative reveals how her unremitting faith in God empowered her to navigate the most trying of circumstances, from childhood as a slave to adulthood as a woman fighting for her freedom.


Bethany Veney shown above in a portrait, or Betty as she was known around her community, begins her tale by recalling the moment in her childhood where she was taught the importance of honesty, making it clear that it was this lesson alone that gave her the fortitude to fight for herself throughout life. Betty’s narrative is decidedly unique among the genre, for rather than describing the unspeakable horrors of slave life, she devotes her words to the morals by which she lived and the heartache that humanizes everyone. In this way, her story becomes one of humanity, not just a description of a series of events.

The relationship that Betty formed with her master’s daughter, Miss Lucy, is one that illustrates compassion and hope:

She was kind and tender-hearted. She often said she hated slavery, and wanted nothing to do with it; but she could see no way out of it.

It is here that the reader begins to see the true complexity to slave life and the psychology surrounding it. Here Betty also describes how she found the old woman kind for whom she worked while her master was away, due to the fact that she did not whip or starve her. Even she notes how a freeborn white child would have more extensive criteria for determining the kindness of someone!

Another recollection from her childhood reveals a fascinating insight into the economic allure of slavery when she overhears her master dismissing Miss Lucy’s idea to have a freeman from the North come and escort Betty to safety, for freemen quickly learn the profits to be had when they hold in their possession an ex-slave:

It was true that many Northern men came South very bitter in their opposition to slavery, and after a little while came to be the hardest and most cruel slaveholders.

Perhaps the most impactful experience in her youth occurred when Miss Lucy encouraged a friend to take Betty to a camp-meeting, where her desire to be free one day impelled her to pray and follow the path of God. All through her life it was this faith that reassured her actions. Similarly to how Charles Finney describes, it was by her own motives and will that Betty invested her faith passionately in God (Finney 2). When her master learned of her going to the church, of course she received severe punishment, but astonishingly even at her young age, she persisted in going. Not only that, but she even started encouraging her master to become a religious man, and although he never approved of Betty’s faith, he and the masters she would later served indeed admired her for her devotion and honesty. These qualities that Betty always upheld served to cultivate more positive experiences with those she served. Shown below is a camp-meeting location in Blue Ridge where Betty lived.



The writing itself is highly emotional and illustrative, particularly when expressing the treachery faced in her attempted eloping with her first love, Jerry. An instance occurs during this time where Betty is forced to lie to a slave tracker as to Jerry’s location, and remarkably she notes her guilt and shame for lying, even though it is to a white man who is threatening her, that is just how much integrity she had.

A stark contrast to Betty’s humanity emerges when retelling how she was dressed-up for auction to be sold:

This dressmaker was a most disagreeable woman, whose business it was to array such poor creatures as we in the gaudiest and most striking attire conceivable.

It is in this situation that the reader sees an apparent contrast to Betty’s previous experiences with whites such as Miss Lucy, who treat her with compassion. Here Betty is retelling the experience of being made into a product, by which all traces of humanity are stripped from the relationship between white man and slave (Johnson, 121).

Betty’s story ends with her eventually migration to Massachusetts, where she experiences this contradiction of the joy of long-sought freedom and homesickness. She remarks at the unfamiliarity of a strange new land where she is not recognized by neighbors, which provides insight into some of the deeper elements of community in slave life. The optimism stirred by her faith encapsulated the philosophy of equality and lack of resentment that Betty harbored, noting that she has finally attained a life:

…where I should need no pass written by a human hand to insure my safety as I went from place to place, but where the stamp of my humanity, imprinted by the Infinite Father of all, should be an all-sufficient guarantee in every emergency.


In her later years, Betty returned to the South to visit her old masters, and there was atonement between them despite the previous circumstances of their relationship. This shows the complex nature of the psychology surrounding how masters related to their slaves.