Teaching children history through song

U.S. Slave Song Project comes to life in a book for young — and older — readers.


Last week former educator and current New York Congressman Jamaal Bowman tweeted that he is sending a package of books to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis to help him continue his “antiracist journey and overall education.” When I heard this news, it occurred to me that the Vineyard should also send DeSantis a package of books, as a thank-you of sorts for allowing us to demonstrate what humanitarian compassion looks like. If we do this, I recommend that our package includes the 2021 book for children “A Guide for Young People: Studying U.S. Slave Songs,” by Vineyard-based authors James Thomas and Dr. Lorna Andrade, with illustrations by Virginia Stone.

The book, which is educational and profoundly moving, has examples of the songs and spirituals that were sung by slaves to communicate information that they didn’t want their masters and mistresses to know. But this book is more than its songs. Thomas and Andrade provide important historical context in an accessible question-and-answer format.

“The call-and-response style was adopted from the African tradition of conveying history, current events, and directions between villages,” Thomas and Andrade write. “The slaves became masters at the language of irony and the art of deception. The masters and mistresses never knew that ‘Rockin’ Jerusalem’ celebrated the insurrection led by Nat Turner in 1831.”

In 2005, Thomas founded the U.S. Slave Song Project, which is “dedicated to educating the public about the history and interpretation of U.S. slave songs through presentations and performances.”

“The first group of slaves that came over were teenagers, and the first guidance they were given was, You are going to work together all day, and you aren’t going to talk to each other. They’re saying that to teenagers!” Thomas said during a recent Zoom interview. “They found a way to communicate through song, and they always had a message in each song to the other slaves, and a message in case slave owners walked into the room. They could very quickly change certain words if they needed to.”

Thomas and Andrade write that their stated objectives for the book include educating readers that “African slaves were brilliant to use musical styles from Africa to communicate,” and explaining “how to decode the slave songs.”

They provide examples of some of the code words that were used by slaves within the songs. For example, “Jordan Rivermeant the Atlantic Ocean. (The spirituals “Deep River” and “Roll, Jordan, Roll,” were about crossing the Atlantic.)

The book also includes sections of lyrics from spirituals and answers to questions from young people. Many of the questions are about slavery and the lives of enslaved men, women, and children.

“Is it illegal to own another human being in the United States?” “What was a group of slaves tied together called?”

Other questions from young people are focused on the songs and secret codes.

“Children: How did codes of songs get changed?

“Answer: When a code was suspected to be determined by an informer or anyone working for the slave master, the slaves would change the code. For example, Harriet Tubman, whose code name was Moses, became Sweet Chariot, in the spiritual ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.’”

Thomas, Andrade, and Stone all met while singing spirituals at church on the Vineyard. “Whenever we would sing and there were children in the audience, they would come up to us after the concert and ask questions,” explained Andrade. “We decided we wanted to write an educational guidebook so that children will have a greater understanding of why we sing these songs, and what the deliverer was giving to the masses — by way of the codes.”

Stone’s illustrations were created primarily using brown Prismacolor pencils to give them the sepia-toned look of old photographs. Most of the drawings have captions such as “Follow the drinking gourd” and “Escaped slave looking through fence at quilt for messages.” She wrote in an email, “The lack of other colors gives them a seriousness of purpose as well as the feeling from the past.”

While “A Guide for Young People: Studying U.S. Slave Songs” was written for children, it is not just a children’s book. Gov. DeSantis, you should pick up a copy.

“A Guide for Young People: Studying U.S. Slave Songs” is available at Bunch of Grapes bookstore and Edgartown Books.