The Role of Slave Art in the Resistance
by Joellen ElBashir and Donna M. Wells


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     Slaves developed an intricate system of secret codes and signs which they used to communicate with each other and with those who would eventually help them escape to freedom. The secret codes and signs were often embedded in the music, art, and poetry--art forms of American slaves. Certain spirituals and folk songs sung by slaves and some of the quilts they made were not only forms of artistic expression, they also contained hidden messages--hidden from their owners, who feared the education of slaves and their ability to communicate, both of which, they believed, would lead to insurrection.
     The double meaning of the slave spiritual Steal Away is an obvious musical invitation to the slave to seek freedom from slavery. The lyrics could also be interpreted as a call for a secret meeting among the slaves. Songs, then, became a major means of secret communication.

     Hidden visual messages have been identified in patterns sewn into the slaves’ handmade quilts. Under the pretense of creating a covering for the bed, some slave artisans were actually creating a system of secret, visual codes. The patterns, knots, stitching and colors conveyed instructions on ways to escape slavery, and when hung outside, conveyed directions to the North.

     The poetry of fugitive slaves became an important tool for the abolitionist movement. Usually including a paean to their newly-achieved freedom, such poems also spoke of the harshness and cruelty of slavery. Abolitionists used these poems in their anti-slavery literature to illustrate the plight of the slave.


Click on the icons below to examine a spiritual, quilt patterns, and fugitive slave poetry.





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August 2000