On My Journey Now: Looking at African-American History through the Spirituals

On My Journey Now: Looking at African-American History through the Spirituals

by Nikki Giovanni

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"The intimate, unpretentious talk about familiar songs will grab readers, who will want to find out more about the inspiring history." — BOOKLIST (starred review)

Ever since she was a little girl attending three different churches, poet Nikki Giovanni has loved the spirituals. Now, with the passion of a poet and the knowledge of a historian,


"The intimate, unpretentious talk about familiar songs will grab readers, who will want to find out more about the inspiring history." — BOOKLIST (starred review)

Ever since she was a little girl attending three different churches, poet Nikki Giovanni has loved the spirituals. Now, with the passion of a poet and the knowledge of a historian, she paints compelling portraits of the lives of her ancestors through the words of songs such as "Go Down, Moses" and "Ain’t Got Time to Die," celebrating a people who overcame enslavement and found a way to survive, to worship, and to build.

Editorial Reviews

VOYA - Teresa Copeland
Giovanni charts the course that African American spirituals took as they transformed from slave songs to coded messages to central features of modern African American culture. Written as short musings on different aspects of the spirituals and their place in history, Giovanni's book fills in the context of such familiar songs as "Kumbaya" and "Follow the Drinking Gourd." She starts with the simple sounds of moaning and humming used by those on the deadly boat passages to comfort each other. Once Christianity entered the slave's lives, the songs transformed into veiled slights at the masters, instructions for runaways, and songs to comfort, all underlying lyrics on religious themes. Giovanni explains why the slaves used songs to pass secret messages and examines why they embraced the religion of their masters-religion gave them hope, a reason to work, and a way to stay sane. Most of the context and meanings presented come from oral tradition and Giovanni's extensive travels and research throughout the South and to Africa. Although this book is not strict history, with citations and such, it is a valuable and beautiful exploration of music as central to the life of people. The text itself is lyrical, with snippets of songs woven naturally throughout. The full lyrics of the songs mentioned are included at the end, along with recommended recordings, additional biographical notes about people mentioned, and sources for the songs.
Children's Literature - Claudia Mills
One part historical exploration, one part personal reflection, here poet Giovanni asks the fundamental question of how enslaved Africans retained their sanity. Her answer is that these people made a decision to go forward, to live, and that decision was expressed in music—first in a moan, a heart-rending hum, and finally in the enduring music of African-American spirituals. Singing allowed enslaved people to do the work of building this country, to communicate forbidden information to one another, to share protest, grief, hope, and dignity. In an intensely personal voice, Giovanni interweaves the lyrics of the spirituals with her own recounting of the African-American experience: "The slave community was not a judgmental community... If you had the baby and it lived, if you had the baby and it died, they were not going to judge you. And I could see why. Anything you do is a bad decision, because you can't protect your child, you know. . . We usually sing ‘This Little Light of Mine' as a happy song. . . But there is another way to do it. Kathleen Battle sings it as a demand: ‘This little light of mine,/ I'm going to let it shine.' It's not a happy song; it's that I am going to live." Giovanni's ultimate message is one of pride in the strength of African-Americans and hope for their future. Included are the full text of all the spirituals discussed, glossary of names and terms, bibliography and source notes, and recommended recordings.
VOYA - Lucy Schall
Giovanni draws on religious and life experiences as well as history to express to a supposedly intergenerational audience her opinions on how spirituals reflect the African American journey. She discusses the Middle Passage, identity within slavery, the role of religion, the natural drive for freedom, the special contribution of the Fisk Jubilee Singers, and even the hip-hop generation. Parts of the spirituals are interspersed throughout her essays. Complete lyrics of all forty-seven, in the order presented, appear at the back of the book. With the exception of "We Am Climbing Jacob's Ladder," Giovanni uses Standard English. Although forms such as "lining out," "call-and-response," and "ring shout" are explained in the text, the terms do not appear in the glossary. The bibliography and source notes include general references to four books, two scholars, and the Mudcat listserv. Giovanni points out that "Ain't Got Time to Die" and "Going Up to Glory" are modern spirituals, and infers that "Water Boy," traditionally considered a prison song, could easily have been sung simply by a people seeking relief, but she does not include individual source notes or documentation for specific historical information. Recommended recordings offer several listening suggestions. Having greater impact for young adults, Sharon Draper's Copper Sun (Atheneum/S & S, 2006/VOYA February 2006) portrays many issues that Giovanni addresses in essays. Bound for the North Star: True Stories of Fugitive Slaves by Dennis Brindell Fradin (Clarion, 2000/VOYA October 2001), provides a well-documented picture of the anti-slavery movement and reminds readers that slavery still exists. Teens interested specifically inspirituals can find further information in Slave Spirituals and the Jubilee Singers by Michael L. Cooper (Clarion, 2001/VOYA February 2002).
School Library Journal

Gr 8 Up
The songs written and first sung by African-American slaves were inspired by a host of human needs: to express emotion, to call God, to remain heartened under oppression, and, perhaps most importantly, to communicate covertly, often about the Underground Railroad. Giovanni brings these motives home in this short, impressionistic look at the lives of the slaves, beginning with their holding in places such as Cape Coast Castle and Goree Island, through the end of the Civil War, when members of divided families desperately attempted to track one another down. Giovanni is a poet, and the book has cadence; in tone, it almost reads like the transcript of a speech or sermon, as the author is generous with her own opinions and often refers to herself within the text. The spirituals themselves are thoughtfully placed—and their complete lyrics are printed as back matter—but Giovanni doesn't always effectively connect the songs to the travails they are meant to communicate. Light on dates, time lines, or political explanations, this is neither a thorough nor an academic history; rather, it is an invitation for readers to look into the lives of figures such as Nat Turner and Frederick Douglass, and events such as the Stono uprising and the passing of the Fugitive Slave Act. A glossary of terms will get them started.
—Denise RyanCopyright 2006 Reed Business Information.

Kirkus Reviews
Giovanni's slim, personal exploration of the historical underpinnings of the spirituals presents a unique perspective on a topic rarely examined in young-adult literature. Quoting liberally from 47 songs, Giovanni focuses on the triumph over extreme adversity inherent in both the lyrics and the African-American experience itself. She frequently supplants the noun "slaves" with "the enslaved," honoring the intact humanity of the uprooted Africans. Focusing on the dignity of work and the unity and communication achieved through song, Giovanni ponders both daily and psychic life under and after slavery, in chapters such as "Escape," "Sunday," and "The Fisk Jubilee Singers." She adopts a conversational, free-associative style that should engage teens jaded by dry textbook prose. She opines plenty, too, defending hip-hop, railing against the religious right's usurpation of the Bible and maintaining that America's longstanding grudge against Haiti dates from its role as a haven for slaves escaping the Deep South. Contrasting with the expressive narrative, appended information attests to Giovanni's scholarly chops. An important work to handsell, booktalk and embrace. (foreword, lyrics, biographical notes, bibliography/source notes, recommended recordings, indexes) (Nonfiction. 11+)

Product Details

Candlewick Press
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Product dimensions:
8.80(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.50(d)
920L (what's this?)
Age Range:
11 - 14 Years

Read an Excerpt

America was looking for very, very, very cheap labor, because they wanted workers who were even cheaper than indentured servants. The Africans were taken from their homes, their villages, their cities. They were chained and lined up, and people who could not keep up were thrown to the side. So many people dying changed the patterns of the predators, especially the hyenas, the buzzards, the scavengers. The animals came in closer to the coast, following their prey.

They rowed these people out to the sailboats that were going to take them to America. When they put people on ships - and it was deliberate - they separated family groups so they could not speak to each other, so they could not plot. So the slavers had these people on their hands who they had to keep healthy-looking, or else they weren't going to get anything for them. Sometimes they had to force them to eat, because some of them would go on hunger strikes. They were packed head to toe in the ship. Anything that came out of the next person fell on you. So the sailors had to bring you up and pour water on you to more or less wash you. It's not a wash, but it does what it is supposed to do; it gets off all the dirt and mess that is covering you.

We know from the diaries of slave captains that if they brought the Africans up the first or second day, they would jump overboard because the people could just look back and see home. And, having seen it, having recognized that this was not really going to be a good idea at all, and having struggled, they would want to go back. There is something I'm always laughing about: the myth that Africans don't swim, which is crazy. When swimming pools were segregated, that made it harder for African Americans to learn to swim. But of course Africans could swim; many lived near the Atlantic Ocean, and they would swim. In some cases when they jumped overboard, they were shot in the back and wounded and they died, and in other cases they made it. Most ended up in the belly of a shark. The sharks, too, changed their patterns. They began to follow the ships west, feeding on the bodies of the dead or dying Africans.

So the slavers waited, got to that fourth and fifth day, and then there was a calm among the Africans, and they talked about that. There was a calm because they could look out, and although they couldn't see the land, they could see the heat coming off the land. They could see that shimmer, and it's the most fantastic thing to travel to Africa by boat, because you see the heat before you see the land.

And so, by that sixth or seventh day, or maybe around the eighth day, they could no longer see the land or the heat, and so there is going to be a restlessness, because people are beginning to feel lost, because now they're thinking, "Well, this is farther out." So now we have the Africans in a position of not really being able to see anything familiar. But of course they followed the clouds, and we do know that clouds above land are different from clouds over water, so they could see that land had to be that way. And so we're going to have a serious problem somewhere around the tenth day. And those who study this - I'm just a poet, but the people who study slavery - say that those ships' captains knew that this was going to be the day that, I don't want to say all hell is going to break loose, but the day they really have to tighten up, because now the people realize they will not know how to get home.

Fare you well, fare you well, fare you well, everybody.
Fare you well, fare you well, whenever I do get a-home.

What those captured people had - which is why I so admire those people - was a tone, a voice, a moan. They made a decision, because they had to decide: Do we shut ourselves down, or do we continue forward? Now, they ultimately are going to sing a lot of songs; they're going to sing a song that says,

Done made my vow to the Lord,
And I never will turn back.
I will go,
I shall go,
To see what the end will be.

Done opened my mouth to the Lord,
And I never will turn back.
I will go,
I shall go,
To see what the end will be.

So, it's a fabulous thing. But there is also a much sadder song that says,

I told Jesus it would be all right if He changed my name,
I told Jesus it would be all right if He changed my name,
I told Jesus it would be all right if He changed my name.
And He told me that I would go hungry if He changed my name,
And He told me that I would go hungry if He changed my name,
And He told me that I would go hungry if He changed my name.

The Africans are trying to decide, do we continue forward to see what the end will be, or not? Do we agree to change our names, or not? And frankly speaking, I always think it was a woman who started the singing, because I think women do that. Somewhere in the belly of that ship, a woman started in humming, because she couldn't call out and speak to others - there were too many different languages. But she could hum, and that hum, that moan was picked up and went all over the ship and became a single voice. We've heard it in groups like the Moses Hogan Chorale; you hear the voices of all of those people becoming one voice, and it's a moan. But that moan says, "We will find a way; we will continue."


ON MY JOURNEY NOW by Nikki Giovanni. Copyright (c) 2007 by Nikki Giovanni. Published by Candlewick Press, Inc., Cambridge, MA.

Meet the Author

Nikki Giovanni is the author of several books for children, most recently ROSA, illustrated by Bryan Collier. Three of her poetry collections for adults have received NAACP Image Awards. She is a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech and lives in Christiansburg, Virginia.

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