Spirituals

This lesson plan introduces students to the role that spirituals have played in African American history and religion. The lesson begins with a review of factors that contributed to the development of the spiritual, which reflects the influence of African religious traditions, Christian traditions, and the conditions of slavery. Students explore the community-building power of this combination by listening to a performance of "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," perhaps the best-known spiritual. They then turn to the 19th-century biography of Harriet Tubman to examine how she used spirituals as a secret signal to fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. Against this background, students reconsider the impact of the line from "an old Negro spiritual" with which Martin Luther King, Jr., ended his famous "I Have A Dream" speech and the influence of spirituals on his speaking style. Finally, to conclude the lesson, students collect spirituals by interviewing family members, friends, and acquaintances, in order to investigate how deeply this African American religious tradition has woven itself into American culture, and share similar songs that reflect their heritage.

Guiding Questions

No guiding questions

Learning Objectives

To learn about the role spirituals have played in African American history and religion

To examine Harriet Tubman's use of spirituals in her work for the Underground Railroad

To explore the continuing power of the spiritual in the Civil Rights Movement and as a shared American heritage

To gain experience in working with oral tradition, biography, and song as types of historical evidence