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Melodies of Resilience and Resistance: Exploring the African American Experience through Musical Analysis

By Bridget Morton, Ed.D. (Mars Hill University)

Download PDF – Spring 2024, Article 3

Art is a creative expression of individual thoughts and emotions in response to lived experiences. Exploring how art has been a source of agency for individuals facing adversity throughout American history is an important lens for understanding the long struggle for civil rights. Art analysis specifically gives teachers a method for addressing Jefferies’s (2019) call to “Be Explicit”. When people live within societal structures that deny them freedom, art is a way to express personal agency within challenging circumstances.

Music is one form of art students can analyze to understand how individuals exercised agency to navigate horrendous social structures and build community to advocate for improvement in their lives during the long struggle for civil rights. Spirituals, most commonly referred to as African American spirituals or Black spirituals, are religious songs that evolved from the Black experience during the period of American slavery. They were constructed from African musical traditions and combined teachings from Christianity. Enslaved persons used spirituals as illustrations of their experiences and as resistance to the institution of slavery. Resistance manifested itself through coded messages for escape or celebrations of humanity within societal structures that sought to destroy the worth of those enslaved.

After emancipation, African Americans continued to utilize music as an expression of their culture and a tool to fight for freedom. Minstrel shows were the first place after the end of slavery that Black performers were allowed to share their art with the public. Even though minstrel shows were an art form used to mock and debase African Americans, Black performers demonstrated agency by including African spirituals in the performances, expressing positive views of their culture and resilience as they stood before a white audience and sang songs of joy and freedom.

Segregation laws continued to limit Black performers in the first half of the 20th century, but African American artists used their creative and innovative talents to both insert themselves into the burgeoning American cultural industries and to combat racism. By the 1920s, popular recordings of blues women like Mamie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and the legendary Bessie Smith (no relation) opened up the field of the so-called Race Records to Black musicians and audiences alike. During the same decade, the new rhythmically swinging sounds of improvised marching band music from New Orleans and other Mississippi River locations cohered into a genre of jazz that was also soon recorded by both Black and white southerners (Gilbert, 2015). By the 1930s, Black artists began to collaborate with white artists in defiance of segregation within the musical industry (African American Song) and other dimensions of their lives. Despite the intermingling of Black and white artists, strict segregation laws remained.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 legally ended segregated performance venues (African American Song), yet Jim Crow laws persisted to enforce racial segregation. Across musical genres, Black artists rejected the underlying notions of African Americans as deserving only second-class citizenship and belied any claim that Blacks were not equal to whites. Yet, of course, few spoke out publicly against Jim Crow, recognizing that their livelihoods often rested on putting their artistry ahead of overt politics. Nonetheless, Black musicians and entertainers transformed American popular culture and, by doing so, insisted on their full humanity and their deserving status as equal American citizens. The emergence of hip-hop took long-standing musical traditions in a new direction, but the themes of freedom, resilience, and community continue to resonate in the artists’ creations. For a detailed explanation of the progression from African American Spirituals to hip-hop, read the Library of Congress’ article “African American Song”.

Teaching with Primary Sources Civil Rights Fellowship (TPS CRF) Fellows Frances Meetze and Joye Taylor, both teachers at Gilbert High School South Carolina, developed the lesson “Slavery, Spirituals and Hip-Hop: How do they connect?” for secondary social studies and ELA students . However, the activities can be easily adapted for other grades. In this lesson, students compare spirituals, slave narratives, and contemporary hip-hop music to investigate the question: How do spirituals connect with modern music to show continuity and change over time in the African American experience? The lesson begins with students’ comparison of African American spirituals and slave narratives that were collected, edited, and published by the Federal Writer’s Project in the 1930s. The comparison of personal expression in artwork to interviews of formerly enslaved individuals helps students achieve two goals: (a) recognize differences in art used for personal expression and experiences meant to be shared with others and (b) gain a fuller understanding of the enslaved individuals during the time period of American slavery. Students connect their findings to contemporary music as they study themes of the African American experience throughout the long and continued struggle for civil rights. This lesson relies on primary source instruction to build student background knowledge, deepen critical thinking with individual research, and connect the past with contemporary ideas.

Building Background Knowledge

The opening activity provides students with three primary sources inviting them to consider how enslaved individuals responded to their enslavement. Bell (2011) explains, “One thing that makes teaching with primary sources deeply engaging is that they document what was happening at the time being studied. However, this is also why they can be problematic” (para. 2). One difficulty with primary sources from the time of American slavery is the offensive language that was commonplace at the time. Teachers need to intentionally prepare students for the historical language, explaining that terms such as “Negro” and “colored” were commonly used words during the period of history under study. The first “B” in Jefferies’s (2019) Principles for Teaching Race and Racism is to be clear about language and set clear guidelines with students about what is acceptable to use in the classroom. Teachers must explain that these terms are not respectful or appropriate to use in contemporary conversations. However, when discussing the primary source, it is okay to use the term only in a direct quotation from the source. A supplemental primary source for examining views of the term “Negro” from a historical perspective is the W.E.B. DuBois letter titled, “The Name ‘Negro’” from 1928.

Students begin their primary source analysis with a newspaper article announcing an upcoming slave auction meant to help students deepen their understanding of how individuals were treated as property and emphasize the dehumanization of African Americans who were enslaved. The second source is a slave narrative that chronicles the everyday experiences of slavery from a firsthand account of Ezra Adams. Delacroix (2019) emphasizes the point that slave narratives “don’t just describe the ways enslaved people resisted enslavers’ efforts to reduce them to commodities” (para. 13); they are an act of resistance, showcasing the humanity and intelligence of formerly enslaved individuals. The final source, in the introductory steps of this lesson, is an African American spiritual introducing students to the musical traditions of the enslaved.

Students analyze one source at a time, adding their observations to the nested box graphic organizer (Figure 1) and then discussing their thoughts with a small group.

After the group has analyzed the first source, individuals receive the second source and repeat the process but with an emphasis on how the second primary source changes their thinking. This process is repeated until students have moved through all three primary sources. One component of historical thinking is analyzing an event through multiple perspectives, which helps students learn to construct their viewpoint using various sources and then defend their own interpretations with evidence.

After reflecting on the collection of primary sources, groups synthesize their knowledge into a summary of the experiences of enslaved individuals and how they responded to their enslavement. Summaries are shared and the teacher collects key ideas on a class graffiti wall. This graffiti wall lives in the classroom as space to showcase the development of student ideas as they continue to examine the essential question and develop an informed opinion based on primary source evidence.

Teachers may want to provide additional background knowledge after students have completed their initial inquiry into this topic. Additional background knowledge can be helpful for students to contextualize their ideas on a historical topic. For more information on African American spirituals, visit the Library of Congress’ article on African American Spirituals.

Conducting Primary Source Research

Student groups then conduct research to locate an African American spiritual from The Library of Congress Celebrates the Songs of America. Students use their newly constructed background knowledge to select a spiritual from the collection demonstrating personal agency in response to enslavement. Time for individual research and exploration of primary sources engages students in critical thinking skills needed to become adults who regularly practice critical thinking. Each group explains how their selection illustrates agency during American slavery. Conversations that are grounded in personal reflection based on textual evidence create a space for open dialogue that often shifts toward the complexity of human suffering and resilience during this time period in American history.

Making Connections

In the final step, students connect the past experiences of enslaved individuals to contemporary musical expressions of the African American experience. Students analyze song lyrics in Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” and compare themes to the African American spiritual “Nobody Knows”. Then, students work in groups to self-select a contemporary song that connects with the African American spiritual selected during their primary source research. Students create a blackout poem using the text from both musical selections that reflects their thematic connection.

Student Sample 1

Student Sample 2

Connecting music as a primary source from the past to contemporary music encourages students to look for patterns over time to analyze the historical themes of change and continuity. This also expands students’ understanding of and appreciation for the range of primary sources. Primary sources provide a critical perspective for students that helps them consider how past events impact the present. This lesson helps students understand one critical element of the long struggle for civil rights: art and agency. Students come to realize how music has been used to help African Americans endure difficult situations while also advocating for positive change in their fight for civil and human rights.

Art can influence change. Studying art from the long civil rights movement helps students understand how art is a source of strength: the strength to endure life’s difficulties and strength to fight for change. Music is an art form that has served an important role in the African American experience from the period of slavery to contemporary situations. Using primary source instruction to analyze this art form develops a historical perspective in young learners that helps them reflect on the past to better understand connections to the present. The three-step process (primary source analysis, personal research, and connecting to the present) used in this lesson is a framework that can be replicated in other lessons to deepen students’ historical thinking skills on issues connected to the long struggle for civil rights.


African American Song. (n.d.). Library of Congress.

Bell, D. (2011, November 30). Dealing with difficult subjects in primary sources. Teaching with the Library: Primary sources & ideas for educators, Library of Congress.

Delacroix, J. (2019). Teaching hard history from the beginning. Learning for Justice, 63.

Du Bois, W. E. B. (1928, March). The Name “Negro”.

Gilbert, D. (2015). The product of our souls: Ragtime, race, and the birth of the Manhattan musical marketplace. University of North Carolina Press.

Jeffries, H. K. (Ed.). (2019). Understanding and teaching the Civil Rights Movement. University of Wisconsin Press.