The Autobiography of Frederick Douglass


In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, Douglass describes his arduous journey from slavery to freedom. In doing so, he provides a detailed account about slaves’ everyday lives that enlightens his readers about the realities of slavery. Though there are many passages of note, one that is particularly powerful comes at the end of Chapter 2, when Douglass discusses the slaves’ singing. These few paragraphs correct the common misunderstanding that slaves sang to express their joy, as Douglass stresses repeatedly that "[s]laves sing most when they are most unhappy." In fact, not only did these spirituals serve as an outlet for slaves’ anguish, but they also allowed slaves to express their devotion to God, to praise the democratic ideals to which they were not yet privy, and to pass along messages hidden within the songs. After the abolition of slavery, spirituals remained a part of American music, and many of them, such as "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," continue to be sung today. In addition, spirituals served as an influence in the ever-evolving landscape of American music, and elements of slaves’ songs remain prevalent in music today.


  1. Students will be able to understand and identify slaves’ purpose in singing spirituals.
  2. Students will be able to identify common characteristics of spirituals.
  3. Students will be able to use primary or secondary sources to analyze the history of spirituals.
  4. Students will be able to critically analyze the effect of spirituals on modern music.

Lesson 1 – History of Spirituals

Read aloud the last three paragraphs of Chapter 2, and then make notes on the board about the various purposes of spirituals as identified by Douglass. The list should include (but is not limited to): to express disdain for slavery, to pray to God for liberation, and to release pent-up grief.

Distribute lyrics for "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot" and "Steal Away," and then listen to each song at least once. Lyrics and audio for both songs are available here:

Instruct students to listen for common elements of the songs. After listening, make notes on the board about what students noticed. The list of characteristics should include (but is not limited to): covert meaning, relationship with God, call-and-response format, focus on rhythm (not melody), a sense of unity in one’s own community, and both democratic and Christian ideals.

Divide the students into groups, and assign each group one of the websites below. (Depending on class size, you may have more than one group covering each website.) With their groups, students should make additional notes on both the purpose and the characteristics of spirituals.

Conduct a brief whole-class discussion to ensure that students’ lists are similar.

For homework, students should listen to at least two spirituals on their own. They should then write a reflection covering (a) their reaction to the songs’ contents and (b) which common characteristics are present in the songs. Students can find links to over 100 spirituals at this site: then scroll down to "Spirituals"

Lesson 2 – Spirituals’ presence in modern music

Spend a few minutes in the beginning of class having students share what they wrote for homework, focusing primarily on students’ reactions to the songs.

Then, listen to modern songs that contain some of the characteristics of spirituals. Discuss how those characteristics have remained constant while music has continued to evolve. Have students identify the characteristics of spirituals in each modern song as well as the purpose of each song in relation to the purposes of spirituals as described by Douglass. Students should recognize that these modern songs also contain stark differences to spirituals; some of the artists are white, for example, while others reference Eastern philosophies. They all nonetheless owe a debt to the spiritual format.

A sampling of relevant modern songs:
"Po’ Lazarus" on the soundtrack for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" (2000)
"Work Song" by Nina Simone on "Nina Simone’s Finest Hour" (2000)
"Stand" by Sly and the Family Stone on "Stand!" (1969)
"Lost Ones" by Lauryn Hill on "The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill" (1998)
"Looking Through the Darkness" by Guru on "JazzMatazz Volume 2: The New Reality" (1995)
"My City of Ruins" by Bruce Springsteen on "The Rising" (2002)
"Move On Up" by Curtis Mayfield on "The Very Best of Curtis Mayfield" (1997)
"Time for Livin’" by the Beastie Boys on "Check Your Head" (1997)
"U.N.I.T.Y." by Queen Latifah on "Black Reign" (1993)
 "Karma Police" by Radiohead on "OK Computer" (1997)
"I’ll Take You There" by The Staples Singers on "The Best of the Staple Singers" (1986)
"A Change Is Gonna Come" by Sam Cooke on "The Man and His Music" (1986)
"(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding?" by Elvis Costello on "Armed Forces" (2002)

For homework, students should find at least two modern songs that are, in some way, related to spirituals. Their work should include the lyrics (including the song’s title and the artist), the album on which the song appears, and the year the album was published. They should then write an analysis of the songs’ relationship to spirituals that identifies aspects of each song that are similar to and different from spirituals. Students should consider the time period, artist, and content of the songs and select specific lines from each song to discuss.

Extension Activities

Students bring in audio versions of their songs and present their findings to the class.

Students write their own songs, either spirituals or modern songs that contain spiritual elements.