Feb 23, 2009

The Fresh Prince lied to me

It turns out that 90s sit-coms are not reliable sources of historical information. Who knew?

I clearly remember the moment, sitting at home after school watching the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air finding out something about African American identity that he didn't already know. He was suitably humbled and even granted his namby-pamby cousin a degree of respect for knowing something that he didn't.

You see, the Fresh Prince had thought that negro spiritual/gospel songs were simply ways of bouying themselves up, of giving themselves some hope for the future, and some way of taking their minds off the hell on earth in which many of them lived. But no! His cousin (whose name completely escapes me, so I'm going to have to google it...Carlton!) Carlton knew the true history, and then Will Smith and the entire audience did too...

You see, the story goes that many of the early negro spirituals were 'code songs', giving precise directions and instructions for escaped slaves to find their way along the Underground Railroad - of safe houses where people would give them shelter and help them escape to the north/Canada.

I have loved this story for years, and whenever I hear or sing one of those classics like 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot', or 'Wade in the Water', I'd remember the secret purpose of those songs. I would thrill in the daring and terrifying escape plans, and the communication from field to field as a song got passed along. I never found out any more about it, but that little snippet was enough to fire my adolescent imagination.

The other day we had a CD of Sunday School music playing and there was one song which went
The animals went in one by one
There's one more river to cross
something something rhymes with one
There's one more river to cross

There's one wide river
And that's the river of Jordan
One wide river
There's one more river to cross

The animals went in two by two...
Which I thought was odd. The story of Noah's ark and the animals has nothing to do with the River Jordan. So I thought it must be one of those special songs. I thought that I would finally find out more about these secret code songs, for which I assumed there would be a whole pile of information. Which led me to the internet, of course. Which led to the shattering of a really good story.

Because, you see, there is absolutely no evidence that spirituals were used as precisely coded instructions for anything. All 'reputable' historians who have looked into it have sadly concluded it was a nice story but have placed it into the 'urban legend' category, with the first references to it arising in the mid-20th century. The other type of historian have continued to talk about it, but mysteriously fail to include any reference as to the source of their information.

Which makes me a bit sad.

But in the process, I have learned some more about the Underground Railroad, of which I was utterly ignorant (aside from knowing its name). I also found The National Geographic's Underground Railroad game, where you are a slave seeking to escape from a Maryland farm in 1850. Duly bookmarked for when the kids get old enough to not have nightmares about it.

I have also learned that 90s sit-coms starring teeny-bop rap artists are not reliable sources of information. Who'd a thunk it?

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