Wade in the Water, a Negro spiritual
Wade in the water Wade in the water, children, Wade in the water God’s a-going to trouble the water See that host all dressed in white God’s a-going to trouble the water The leader looks like the Israelite God’s a-going to trouble the water See that band all dressed in red God’s a-going to trouble the water Looks like the band that Moses led God’s a-going to trouble the water Look over yonder, what do you see? God’s a-going to trouble the water The Holy Ghost a-coming on me God’s a-going to trouble the water If you don’t believe I’ve been redeemed God’s a-going to trouble the water Just follow me down to the Jordan’s stream God’s a-going to trouble the water
I didn’t know at first what I wanted for my cultural artifact. So when I was browsing online, I originally just typed in “African Cultural Artifact” and went from there. As I scrolled through possibilities, certain freedom ballads came up. Music has always been a large part of my life. Everyday at home, I blast my favorite songs much to the annoyance of my parents. I have played trombone in the school band since the 5th grade and would have joined the marching band if wrestling and Boy Scouts hadn’t limited my time for extra-curricular activities. Because music is one of my passions, I thought it would be great to have a song as my cultural artifact. It was when I looked up the top-ten list of slave songs that I discovered the appropriate term for them are slave or Negro spirituals.
After I listened to “Wade in the Water”, I was hooked because, even though the words are repetitive, the melancholia and stunning tonality of the song gripped me. I had trouble finding the original version of “Wade in the Water” because different artists have modified the spiritual over time, changing or adding to the song. Overall, the message and principal lyrics of “Wade in the Water” have remained intact. As seen in the song lyrics above, this spiritual mainly references the Old Testament, with the exodus of the Israelites fleeing bondage from their Egyptian captures. It highlights Moses’s parting of the Red Sea, which led to the Jews eventual arrival at the Promised Land, but only after a struggling forty years of wandering, lost in the desert (King James Bible). This spiritual parallels the African American slaves’ plight and their search for freedom from their slave masters by escaping up the river to the North.
To better understand why slaves would attempt an escape from their owners, it is best to look at the history of their ordeal. Slavery is arguably one of the most significant time periods for African Americans. Estimates state that ten to twelve million Africans were displaced from their homes and sold to various North and South American colonies, Europe, other parts of Africa, and Middle Eastern countries (Pittman, 2015, Pre-Colonial). This human trafficking started in the mid 1400’s and extending into the late 1880’s, in a time period known as the Transatlantic Slave Trade (Pittman, 2015, Pre-Colonial). Even though only 4.4% of Africans transported during the Transatlantic Slave Trade were sent to the British-American colonies, the development and institutionalization of racial, hereditary slavery there would have long-lasting impacts on African Americans (Pittman, 2015, Pre-Colonial).
The slave’s journey began in Africa, where kidnapped or sold Africans were branded with the mark of a specific company, then shackled and led to the coast. This land journey was perilous, with many Africans dying or becoming weak and ill from dehydration and hunger. Upon arrival to the coast, they would then be stuffed into the lowest, most rodent- and insect-infested parts of European ships, where overcrowding and fecal contamination was the norm (Wilder, 62). Soon-to-be slaves were not often permitted on the upper deck, and any mutinous efforts were punished by death. Diseases spread rapidly with dehydration as the major killer (Wilder, 54). In fact, sometimes, over 50% of a ship’s slave cargo would be lost (Wilder, 65). The corpses were then tossed into the ocean to reduce the risk of further disease and loss of ‘livestock’ (Wilder, 65).
If families somehow managed to survive the voyage and stay connected, they were separated at the auction block, as it was customary to sell slaves separately (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). In order to maintain family ties, many slaves formed non-biological families that extended over many plantations (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). Besides these physical and emotional cruelties endured on route, once becoming a slave, the brutal conditions continued. Many field-worker slaves were worked to death, and women were forced to work while pregnant, often only receiving twenty days off during that time (Dunaway, 129).
Slave women were forced to wean their children early, stunting their growth and leaving them much more prone to disease (Dunaway, 138, 141-142). This harsh treatment led to a severe increase in the death rate of slave children, where 60% died before age ten (Pittman, 2015, Reproductive). These conditions led to a longing for freedom, but escape was often a perilous long shot for slaves.
It is estimated that some 100,000 slaves escaped the South between 1810 and 1850 (“The Underground Railroad.”). It was for this reason that schooling was banned for all slaves, as an educated slave could escape easier and document its horrors (Pittman, 2015, Slavery). Most slaves were illiterate and had to develop new ways to pass along escape route secrets. Besides spirituals like “Wade in the Water”, which hid their cryptic messages within religious text, another common method was through quilt squares. Quilts with specific patterns were hung out for escapees to see and follow like a map (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). Even without the written word and in plain view of the white communities of slaveholders, the Negro slaves were able to build a comprehensive system to direct those that dared to seek freedom.
Scholars of the day often egregiously underplayed the evils of slavery, by using arguments that death rates were the same as adult whites and that families were hardly ever broken up. This prevailing, or dominant paradigm, was incorrect, however. This view only took into account the Lower South and plantations with fifty or more slaves. The revisionist paradigm sought to challenge the dominant view by poking holes in its arguments. To get a clearer picture of the actual malignancy of slavery, revisionists looked at many documents written by slaves (Dunaway, 14, 15). It was found that 88% percent of all slaves lived on plantations with less than fifty slaves and that death rates were higher on smaller plantations (Dunaway, 3). They also considered the Upper South, which had largely been ignored, due to the low occurrence of slavery there, and found that sexual exploitation, which had been thought to be minimal, was, in fact, rampant.
With the passing of the 13th Amendment, which made slavery illegal, it seemed as if the plight of the black community would ameliorate. However, the 1900s were not drastically different, even though all African Americans were technically liberated from their masters, they did not often feel free. Most African Americans, about 90%, were still residing in the South at this time, many with agriculturally-related jobs (Grossman, 34). They were kept there through a debt peonage system, where the worker can accumulate debt, keeping them reliant on and tied to the land owners (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). Those that were forced into these peonage jobs faced conditions eerily similar to those of their former slave days. Many African Americans stayed with their previous owners since they had nowhere to go and often had no money to buy any goods (Dunaway, 219-220, 222).
Former masters, desperate to regain control of these recently emancipated blacks and rebuild the economically and environmentally damaged South from the effects of the Civil War, passed the Black Codes in 1865 and 1866, in addition to various Jim Crow laws (Slavery By Another Name: The Documentary Film). These laws would segregate African Americans from whites and severely limit black autonomy. For example, vagrancy laws required that blacks have proof of employment at all times, otherwise they were considered criminals (Slavery By Another Name: The Documentary Film). Others imprisoned blacks for an extended duration or sentenced them to death, much like the slave codes instituted during the 1700s (Slavery By Another Name: The Documentary Film).
Prison was far from safe for many blacks, however. During this time period, almost two-thirds of blacks were being charged for crimes they did not commit (Slavery By Another Name: The Documentary Film). This would be the result of a loophole in the 13th amendment. Some individuals recognized the economic value of black prisoners, and even though the 13th amendment had abolished slavery, it could still be used as a punishment (Slavery By Another Name: The Documentary Film). The practice of hiring out prisoners led to the development of the similar practices of convict leasing and chain gangs as another cog in the debt peonage slavery system (Slavery By Another Name: The Documentary Film).
Oftentimes, there would be contracts stipulating how long these convicts would work, but proprietors of the system did not usually follow them. These laws also made the practice of sharecropping and cottage tenancy possible. Sharecropping often involved renting land out to African Americans, where they would farm a crop and receive a fraction of what they had farmed, along with some money, while cottage tenancy allowed former slaves to reside in slave housing and work for food, shelter, and money, with the aforementioned items being taken out of their paycheck (Dunaway, 231). Both of these practices were effective weapons in the debt peonage system.
Unfortunately for them, the odds were stacked against them before they began. Sharecroppers charged exorbitant interest rates, pushing 40-70%, while the average interest on a loan for money to rent land at that time was only 4-8% (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). Both sharecroppers and cottage tenants were regularly defrauded when it came to receiving their wages or share of the crop (Dunaway, 234). Often, the land owners would declare that the workers had cost them money, creating false debt for African Americans. They had no power to resist, as the fear of white violence was high and more starving African Americans could always be found to replace them if they complained. White violence, such as lynching and patty rollers (slave patrols) roamed the countryside to search for runaways, who were executed or punished severely for their actions (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015).
The songs Africa Americans developed as a form of resistance to slavery endured well past their emancipation due to continued persecution (Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015). As such, “Wade in the Water” did not disappear after legal freedom was achieved. In fact, it was formally revived at the turn of the 20th century. The spiritual was first published in 1901 in the book New Jubilee Songs as Sung by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, jointly compiled by John Wesley Work II and his brother, Frederick (Smith, 466, 1333). It is not known who exactly created the original spiritual, but it is said that Harriet Tubman used this song to tell slaves how to escape detection from the hunting dogs used by the patty rollers and other white patrols by using the river to camouflage their scent (“Music.”). The idea that underground railroad organizers like Tubman referred to this song to help runaway slaves gives credence that it is an authentic slave spiritual.
My belief is that the originator of this song was an African American slave who was inspired to compose a song from his/her experience of attempting to escape slavery. This person possibly sang it in church where it was passed down orally under the guise that it was religious in nature in order to escape detection of being anti-slavery propaganda. From church to farm, it was probably passed along in order to encourage others to make the dangerous trek to freedom. Although the song’s creator has not been able to take credit for this spiritual, he/she more than likely influenced a multitude of slaves to follow the river to freedom, and since its formal debut, more than a few artists have recorded their own take on Wade in the Water.
To combat oppression, music, and more specifically, spirituals survived through the generations even after the so-called freedom of African Americans. While attempting to assimilate themselves among the hostile, white populous, they maintained their African culture, songs and other forms of culture, which were ingrained in the heart of the African American. Even now, spirituals are still a powerful force, whether due to the fact that there is still a long road ahead for true equality and it is sung as a reminder to keep fighting for racial justice or because the beauty and power of the song makes for a timeless resonance in the soul of the listener. As a form of resistance, “Wade in the Water” may not be the go-to song of choice at high-profile rallies and protests for racial equality, but its hauntingly lyrical melody still rings with a magical potency that echoes the struggles for freedom, past and present.
Dr. LaShawnDa Pittman, personal communication, Fall 2015
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