Musical Therapy and Rescue in the Darkest of Times


Haily Luong


When sitting down to reflect upon what we’ve learned so far from the period of racial slavery, to the reconstruction era and black codes; I thought about what I could relate back to myself in a personal way. It has been incredibly enlightening to learn and to be educated on the topic of slavery and the life of African Americans during this time period. It comes with a heavy heart to absorb all of the information and detail that was intrinsic upon the total system of slavery, specifically in North America. It was a severe and outrageously violent and abusive life placed upon a group of people, purely based on the color of their skin. Racial slavery exploded into this massive business, quite frankly. It was a business built upon this evolving craze for profit, money, expansion, and power. The equation held by dominant white male population during this time was profit over humanity (Pittman, 2015). This mindset fueled the notion that profit must be placed above anything and everything, even at the cost of the human being life, lives, and families. It pains me to be fully opened up to the stories and histories of African American enslaved life, involving gut-wrenching horrors and appalling oppression. At the same time, I feel thankful and appreciative to be educated, as I was before taking this course, and sadly far too many people out there, reside in ignorance to the true experiences of slavery as a total institution, and just how horrendous the white man and his actions were in this time period, and centuries to follow (Pittman, 2015). What’s truly remarkable that sparked a particular cord in me, was the eminent strength of black slaves and their incredible resource capabilities to coping mechanisms, resistance, and community family forms. Despite, the oppressed position in which they were enslaved and shackled by, black slaves took huge risks and sacrifice in order to preserve family forms, maintain community, and resist in pursuit of own self-dignity (Professor L. Pittman, personal communication, 2015). They did this in a variety of mechanisms; some that have immensely shaped African American culture to this day. Many examples are instances where black slaves were given the bare minimum of subsistence to skim survival, and they took these meniscal scraps and turned it around to something incredibly beautiful and artistic. From soul food, to dance, art, song, and to music. All forms deserve applause and appraisal, however, music especially to spoke to me.

A big part of my life has centered around music and the art of musical expression. Growing up, learning and comprehending music in a classical form, has given me so many gifts and opportunities. The slave experience is one that is not even on the same playing field, as that of my life’s story, however, I can relate to the artistic space music opens up for outlet healing and recovery. If I can relate to music as a healing form in the minute struggles of my life, then I can only imagine the power it had during slavery for many slaves. Music, and in regards to instrumentation, was an essential key in slave life. The expression of music from the small fiddle to the instrumentation of soon to be blues and jazz; African Americans have shaped and altered the meaning of good music in America throughout history. From the times of slavery to the days of our present, we see a remarkable evolution of soul music shaped by African American culture that can be traced as far back as the fiddle being played in the darkest of times. I have played the flute artistically and recreationally my entire life; never fully engaging in the professional aspect of music. For me, music has been an art form and a space of personal expression. When I have experienced hardship, melancholy, and sadness; music has always been there to lift me up both spiritually and emotionally. When it immediately hit me, as to what I wanted to research on the topic of an “artifact” during the slave period, to which I could relate, express, and discourse; music tugged at my heart.

It was a testing experience, watching the beautifully created film 12 Years a Slave in lecture, however, here is where I saw the light and healing power of music in Solomon Northup’s difficult life portrayed in the Academy Award winning film. We see the protagonist of the true story of Solomon Northup’s devastating capture and kidnapping from his freedom in the North and his family; stripped of all human basic rights and shipped south to the domestic slave trade, treated lesser than a dog. Being a free man in New York, he played violin professionally as a living to provide for his family. At the moment of deception, despair fell upon his fate, as Solomon found himself entrapped into the trenches of the slave trade at the peak of a false business appeal. It is a devastating visual stretch, as we see him over the course of twelve years, struggle to survive the harsh realities of slave life. A gruesome life he encounters, yet he keeps a strand of optimism, faith, and positivity to once be reunited with his family back in a life of freedom. He is put through more hardship, that anyone in this day and age could possibly imagine, yet he persists and finds ways to survive. He survives by adapting to the social and legal infrastructures of slavery as a total institution and social system (i.e. slave codes). There were strict restrictions that stripped black slaves from basic human rights and mobility. Among the intense brutality, violence, and oppression, comes depression and mania. The mental health of these slaves were just as battered as they were physically. That is why it is so striking to me, how given the unbelievably shackled systems in which they were enslaved by, they embraced such strength and persistence emanating core fundamental values of family, community, and relationships. Even though, they were torn away from family and often placed on small plantations, they formed “fictive-kin ties” to the relationships of their fellow slaves to which they were surviving along side (Professor L. Pittman, personal communication, 2015). Solomon Northup’s story reflects just one of many ways in which African American slaves during this time period, began and shaped their infamous and profound culture. In his shackled circumstances as a slave, he uses music to maintain his sanity. Northup’s words striking this resemblance, ““Alas! Had it not been for my beloved violin, I scarcely can conceive how I could have endured the long years of bondage”” (Christy). In a way, music was his life raft.

Negro Life in the South

Here, lays the trail of my admiration for black slaves and their strength, particularly eminent in expressive art forms such as music, for Solomon Northup. When researching artifacts pertaining to music and slavery during this time period, I had come across many images portraying slave life and “happy-go-lucky” illustrations of music. However, there is nothing quite portrayal to the experience as this photograph I found on the UW library archives. Split into two divisions, we see two families and two different experiences. Illustrative of the slave experience during the mid 19th century, we’re given a peep-hole view of home life for many slaves during this time. On the left of this photograph we see, a family away at housekeeping duties. Examining a bit closer, the facial expressions of the individuals in the photograph elicit a sense of despair, exhaustion, and sadness. They appear worn out and beaten down, spiritually and physically. It may have been a shot taken at the rawest point of hardship. The everyday reality that sinks in at the end of the day when they have to reflect upon their position and circumstances in this life. This half of the photograph makes me sad as it represents the many lives of black slaves during this time. What’s so representative of this particular photograph, is the double imagery of hardship on the left and the hope of resistance, strength, and joy on the right. The photograph on the right appears a contrasting portrayal. The man tapping his foot with the fiddle at hand, you can see the music taking over the atmosphere. Taking a closer look at the faces of the individuals in this photograph, we see smiling faces and happy auras. Interpreting this piece of imagery, I see two contrasting visuals blending into one experience. It represents, music as an escape and a vessel to relief and recovery.

In pursuit to resistance through various expressive forms, we see the evolution of African American culture. The ways in which slaves engaged in their own ways of ceremony, tradition, creative expression, here, they spark the beginning of the most beautiful and artistic forms of artistry contributing tremendously to U.S. society. It is important however, to examine the evolution of African American culture in U.S. society, in order to reach the appreciation, it deserves. The emergence of African American culture, is unique in comparison to other cultures in American society, as the influx of Africans in this country was early, large, and involuntary (Kelley & Lewis, 84). The traces of most Africans are rooted as early as the 18th century, contributing to a deeper, richer history. To say the least, African Americans throughout history have faced physical hardship and psychological torment from generation to generation (Kelley & Lewis, 85). Embracing strength in the hardships of oppression and brutal work, black slaves forged links that created families and community. In doing so, art forms such as music played a vital role in forging these links, serving as a life raft for hope, and aiding in resistance against the inequality of slavery. From Solomon Northup’s story of the hope he carried in his violin, to the stories of many slaves, families, and communities; music was an intrinsic element to the slave experience, that ultimately shaped African American culture to this very day.


Pittman, L. 2015. Strange New Land 1619-1776. [Power Point Slides] Retrieved from

Pittman, L. 2015. Slavery & Slave Resistance. [Power Point Slides] Retrieved from

12 Years a Slave. Dir. Steve McQueen. Perf. Chiwetel Ejifor, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael Fassbender. Fox Searchlight Pictures, 2013. Film.

Christy, Gloria S. “Music Through the Decades; The Fiddle Sings the Blues.” Blue Grass Bound. 2015. Web. September, 2015.

Kelley, Robin D. G., Lewis, Earl. “To Make Our World Anew; Preface”.

Cultural Artifact (Image):

Sheppard, William Ludwell. “Negro Life in the South.” 1872. Fpx. (This image was provided by Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute)|search|6|All20Collections3A20Music2C20Slavery|Filtered20Search|||type3D3626kw3DMusic2C20Slavery26geoIds3D26clsIds3D26collTypes3D26id3Dall26bDate3D26eDate3D26dExact3D26prGeoId3D26origKW3D













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