The lives of slaves in early America were characterized by loss, terror and abuse. Enslaved people sang out their sorrows as their hope for a better life – a musical genre that came to be known as the Negro spiritual.

The University of Dayton’s Donna M. Cox sang the songs of her ancestors in the small churches in Virginia and North Carolina during her childhood. Now her scholarship is centered on explaining the power of spirituals. They are not songs of anger, she writes, but of survival that convey the “abiding faith” of enslaved people in the “ultimate triumph of good over systemic evil.”

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A studio group portrait of the Fisk University Jubilee singers. James Wallace Black/American Missionary Association

The power of a song in a strange land

Rev. Dr. Donna M. Cox, University of Dayton

Spirituals were created out of the experience of enslaved people in the US. They weren't songs of anger – but of an abiding belief in the victory of good over evil.

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