The opening chapters of Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845) attribute uncanny documentary power to spirituals. “I have sometimes thought that the mere hearing of those songs would do more to impress some minds with the horrible character of slavery, than the reading of whole volumes of philosophy on the subject could do,” wrote Douglass, who substantiated these horrors through his gruesome description of the sadistic torture of his Aunt Hester by their master. “It was a most terrible spectacle. I wish I could commit to paper the feelings with which I beheld it.” But where the written word proved inarticulate, slave songs bore stirring witness....

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