Even some twentieth-century scholars felt that the creators of these songs hoped for a better life only in the hereafter, rather than the here and now. Both were slaves forced to endure abominable treatment. Families were torn apart. Biblical Hebrews and Africans in America alike were beaten, exploited as labor, killed at the whim of an overseer. Moses is the spokesman for the oppressed, both in front of the Pharaoh and in defiance of the American system of slavery.
In the song, as in the Bible, the message is clear and direct. In the introduction to The Books of American Negro Spirituals, James Weldon Johnson describes how this song was traditionally performed, using the lead and response style traditional in African music. It is almost impossible to interpret this as anything other than an impassioned cry for freedom.
The Pharaoh represents the earthly power of the oppressor. He symbolizes the authority that upholds slavery, both in Egypt and the Americas. Owners, overseers, traders, auctioneers—all function under his protection. Thus, at first, he seems to represent an almost undefeatable enemy for the slave who has neither the law nor weapons on his side.
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However, while the Pharaoh may seem invincible because of his physical strength, he is vulnerable on a moral level. The wickedness of the governmental policies he upholds must demand some type of retribution. This is clearly a key theme in the biblical tale of Moses, and it is carried out in the spiritual as well. Yet the message is clear: God will not allow such evil to go unpunished forever. Moses and the Israelites had the power of a just God to protect them from the Pharaoh and his armies.
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Several critics, such as Johnson and Lovell, have compared African religious practices with the Christianity practiced in the southern part of the United States during the centuries of slavery. While African religion was an intrinsic part of daily life, many slaves were puzzled by the fact that Christianity seemed to be a Sunday event, whose principles were unrelated to day-to-day existence.
The southern spirituals that came out of the slave community exhibit an astonishing degree of unity, dignity, and courage. Given the fact that the slaves had been torn from their families and language, were forced to live in often appalling conditions and were given no opportunity to group together in a social environment, the thematic consistency of the spiritual demonstrates the enormous desire for freedom which stretched throughout the entire slave community.
It stands as a direct attack on the slave system. It contains an almost mocking view of the Pharaoh. Its feature is a melodic fragment sung repeatedly by the chorus as an answer to the challenging lines of the leader which usually change. It is meant to be sung by a group in answer to an individual voice that sings the first and third lines of each stanza.
This repetition not only provides structure for the song, it also enables the lyrics to be easily remembered. In many American history books, is singled out as an important date. That was the year when the Mayflower landed at Plymouth colony, bringing a shipload of Pilgrims who had left their homes and set sail for a new world hoping to find the religious freedom which had been denied them in Europe. Those same books seldom record an equally momentous event which occurred one year earlier: in , a Dutch man-of-war arrived in Jamestown, bringing the first African slaves to the land which would become the United States.
In the decades immediately following , there was little increase in the slave trade in the English colonies. The small towns and farms did not require intensive labor, and thus did not provide a profitable market for the traders. Work was frequently performed by indentured servants, workers who committed themselves to serve a master for a period of several years, after which they received their freedom.
In addition, many settlers hoped to enforce the native Indian population into either indentured servitude or slavery. Thus, the slave trade in the Americas first flourished in the West Indies and the Caribbean where large sugar plantations were established. Gradually, however, slavery was extended throughout North America. At first, slaves in these English colonies were considered the same as indentured servants.
Eleven Angolans who had been brought to work as slave laborers in New Amsterdam in were released from their servitude by the governor of the colony in However, this attitude quickly changed. By the later part of the seventeenth century, codes were established which legalized a system of slavery allowing a slave to be considered as chattel or property.
As the large plantations of the southern United States developed, so did the increased demand for slaves. Soon a triangular trade route flourished.
Ships would leave England loaded with goods and sail to Africa. There the goods were traded for slaves. Ships then made the infamous Middle Passage to the West Indies or the colonies.
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Slaves were exchanged for sugar and other commodities, after which the ships returned to England to begin the process again. Such continual trade meant the number of slaves increased by the thousands almost every year. And five thousand new captives arrived from Africa or the Caribbean each year. Thus, from until the slave trade ended, almost 15,, Africans were wrenched from their homes and brought to the New World under appalling conditions. Many died en route. Those who survived found themselves totally ripped from family and tradition, often without even the presence of someone who spoke the same language.
Nevertheless, slaves formed communities with common dreams and goals. They adapted aspects of Christianity which allowed them to retain many African religious overtones. They struggled against their oppressors, mentally and physically. Many slaves struggled against the harsh conditions. Several stories have been passed down about slaves who threw themselves off the ships if possible, preferring death to life in captivity. During the years when slavery flourished in North America , there were many slave rebellions.
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Over sixty-five have been documented. One of the first occurred in the north, in New York City in , when a group of runaway African slaves burned several buildings. In , a man named Jeremy, a recent arrival from Angola, led over twenty slaves in a rebellion in Stony River, South Carolina. Word of a large-scale slave rebellion in Haiti in reached the United States, inspiring fear in slave-owners and hope in many slaves.
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One man who was encouraged by this example was Gabriel. He hoped to force the white slave-owners of Richmond Virginia, to negotiate with him. Both poor weather and a traitor in his ranks helped to defeat his troops, but not before his rebellion received national attention, including that of the president-elect, Thomas Jefferson. However, armed rebellion was not the only method of seeking freedom for slaves. Many fled North, either on their own or aided by the Underground Railroad, a loose connection of individuals who provided guidance and shelter for runaway slaves.
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One of the best known figures of the system was a former slave, Harriet Tubman. After reaching the relative safety of the northern states, she decided to help others escape. Her role was that. She ventured into the South, escorting groups of fleeing slaves back North with her. Her passion and success were so overwhelming that she became known as Moses, or at times the Black Moses.
Thus the spirituals held out the hope of freedom, not just in the afterlife, but in the present also. The importance of such songs in providing hope is vividly demonstrated in The Music of Black Americans by Eileen Southern. She describes a meeting of black men held on December 31, , in Washington, D. In this reading, Egypt and the Pharaoh represent the plantation and the slave owner, and of course, the Israelites represent the African-American slaves themselves.
He was no legendary figure, he had actually lived. Through him a very bitter slavery had been overthrown. If it could happen once, it could happen again. Another interpretation of the song casts it as a tribute to Bishop Francis Asbury , who in the s as leader of the Methodist church spoke out strongly against slavery. He was their Moses. In this essay, Mahony discusses West African influences and multiple levels of meaning in African-American spirituals. Folk song is the voice of a people, of a community.
It tells of the sorrows, triumphs, and yearn-ings—not of the individual but of the collective. Folk songs are attributed not to a single composer or poet, but to a nation, a tribe or a race. This helps to explain the power and the beauty, as well as the miracle, of the African-American spiritual. They did not speak the same language. It is strange! Because of the amazing difficulties that the slaves faced, some early evaluators of the spiritual, such as E.
Franklin Frazier and George Pullen Jackson, decided that it would have been impossible for slaves to have originated such works. Frazier argued that the African roots of the slaves had been almost completely eradicated so that any music they composed had to come from their contacts in America. Jackson began to trace the development of the white spiritual, comparing these songs to the black spirituals.
He then theorized that the white spiritual had come first. Davis's reading does much to cast new light on the troubling humor of the opening chapter of Go Down, Moses.
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