“Negro spirituals”—songs that were often sung by African American slaves as they worked—are something that we, in our faith tradition, may not be very familiar with. But in a recent Instagram live video, Yahosh Bonner shares the history surrounding these songs:
“This is something that enslaved Africans in America used, not only to connect to God, not only to allow their burdens to be lifted through song and testimony, but it also was a way of communicating to each other . . . on how to escape or just to have a conversation. But I think what was most important was that testimony [of God] that was engrained within them because of the spirituals, because of those songs of praise. It really strengthened them to get through those rigorous days and to survive the atrocities. There’s no way that a people could go through what they went through, and survive—to be survivors—without the hand of God.”
Bonner begins by singing “Steal Away to Jesus,” a song which he explains has a dual meaning.
“To ‘steal away’ means to ‘get away.’ . . . You have your mind focused on Jesus, because as they did that, they were able to do so much more physically and really gain a peace in Christ that was not available to them in the world. . . . And also, to ‘steal away’ means to ‘run away,’ to get away, to escape. So there are dual meanings, which is really neat because a lot of those who were enslaved—they were smart, they were brilliant—so they had to code the way that they spoke, code their songs and their spirituals so that they could communicate with each other and also give direction.”
Yahosh is later joined in the video by two of his siblings, Clotile Bonner Farkas and Oyoyo Bonner. They sing a couple of Negro spirituals that have carried meaning in their own lives: “His Eye Is on The Sparrow” and “Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child.”
Watch the Instagram live video here.