Enslaved African Americans and Expressions of Freedom

by Gloria Sesso


Students will examine African American slave spirituals, a painting, and a personal narrative to analyze the underlying messages of these materials.


The Old Plantation (painting) can be seen at:

The following materials are available as pdf files:
Analysis Chart for Slave Spirituals
The texts of “Joshua Fit de Battle of Jericho,” “Steal Away,” “Didn't My Lord Deliver Daniel,” and “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.”
Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (excerpt)

Aim/Essential Question

How did enslaved African Americans demonstrate their desire for freedom?


  1. Students will analyze The Old Plantation for its cultural meaning.
  2. Students will analyze slave spirituals and Frederick Douglass’s Narrative for their implicit and explicit meanings.
  3. Students will draw conclusions about what these pieces say about the desire for freedom among enslaved African Americans.

Procedures/Pivotal Questions

(1) Either prior to the lesson or in a computer lab, students should be directed to the website: http://www.history.org/history/teaching/enewsletter/volume3/february05/iotm.cfm to view the painting The Old Plantation. The students should be told that the painting is possibly from South Carolina between 1790 and 1800, and the artist is unidentified. The following questions may serve as a guide to an analysis of the painting:

  • What seems to be happening in the painting?
  • Is this a religious ceremony? A wedding celebration? How do you know?
  • Some say that the musician at the right is playing a Yoruba gudugudu, a hollow piece of wood over which an animal skin is stretched to form a drumhead, which is then tapped by lightly twisted strips of leather. The stringed instrument may be a Yoruba molo, a precursor to the banjo. What does this indicate about custom and tradition?
  • What information does the clothing give you?
  • The teacher should define the terms “explicit meaning” and “implicit meaning.” Then the students can be asked: Which of the conclusions that you drew are explicit? Which tell us about the implicit meaning of the painting?
  • How does this painting illustrate the ability of enslaved people to maintain their cultural traditions?
  • How would the painting support the view that freedom was important to enslaved people?

(2) The students receive an Analysis Chart for Slave Spirituals based on John Lovell’s book, Black Song, the Forge and the Flame (New York: Macmillan, 1972). Students are divided into groups and each group is given one of the spirituals to analyze based on the categories of the worksheet. A concluding discussion should focus on:

  • What are the explicit and implicit meanings of the songs?
  • How do the songs express community? Individuality?
  • Are the songs a means of survival? Why? How?
  • Do the spirituals indicate a revolutionary spirit? Why or why not?
  • How is the desire for freedom reflected in each of the spirituals?

(3) An excerpt from Frederick Douglass’s Narrative (on the Covey battle) is distributed to the class. For a more comprehensive selection on the fight with Covey, teachers might visit: http://www.history.rochester.edu/class/douglass/part1.html

Ask the students the following questions:

  • Why does Frederick Douglass challenge Covey?
  • How did the fight change their relationship?
  • Why did Douglass refer to this incident as “a turning point in my life?”
  • Why would slaveholders have suppressed this book?
  • Is there a connection between Douglass’s Narrative and the slave spirituals? Why or why not? Explain.


Based on the information presented in this lesson, would you conclude that enslaved African Americans maintained a desire for freedom throughout their 250 years of subjugation? Explain.


Where can we find examples today of subjugated people seeking freedom?


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