“Free At Last”

While finishing Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, I saw that the last chapter was entitled “Free At Last”. Immediately my mind went to Martin Luther King’s Speech. I wondered if and how the two were connected. So like any curious person with Internet, I googled it. I found that, as MLK mentions in his speech, it is also a spiritual. There are a few versions of this song but these are the lyrics to it that I found:
” FREE AT LAST” from ” American Negro Songs ” by J. W. Work
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Free at last, free at last
I thank God I’m free at last
Way down yonder in the graveyard walk
I thank God I’m free at last
Me and my Jesus going to meet and talk
I thank God I’m free at last
On my knees when the light pass’d by
I thank God I’m free at last
Tho’t my soul would rise and fly
I thank God I’m free at last
Some of these mornings, bright and fair
I thank God I’m free at last
Goin’ meet King Jesus in the air
I thank God I’m free at last

I expected the song to be an exultation of freedom from slavery, which it is. What I did not expect was that the freedom was found in death. The song talks of a graveyard walk and meeting Jesus in the air, which I interpret to be finding freedom in heaven and thanking the Lord for their death. I think it connects to the story quite well. Linda speaks of the joy she feels after she is finally free from the power of slaveholders but also says “that is not saying a great deal” according to her ideals. She is lawfully free but living in an unjust society in which she is still oppressed by racism and where so many are still in bondage.

In 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. exclaimed:

“When we allow freedom to ring-when we let it ring from every city and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, “Free at last, Free at last, Great God a-mighty, We are free at last.”

Like Harrient Brent Jacobs, he too referenced the spiritual to call out for change and freedom. For all three, the book, speech, and song, freedom is found to some extent but it is tied to something darker, which speaks to the Black experience. The three tie in the joy and hope of freedom but do not forget to remind us that underneath it many are still suffering.
Now my question is: Have Black Americans achieved the freedom that Harriet Brent Jacobs and Martin Luther King Jr. strived for? Freedom to walk in the streets without fear, freedom to speak out against injustice, freedom to live life as peacefully as any other American or is there still something darker hiding underneath it all?

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2 thoughts on ““Free At Last”

  1. Andrea, I think this is an excellent observation of how the song and the phrase have been used over time. The shifting use of “Free at Last” across the ages reminded me very much of how “My Favourite Things” has been sung, played, and reworked. In the case of “My Favourite Things,” however, all of the permutations were still songs, like the original. Here, we have a spiritual turned into a slave narrative and then a speech. I wonder what the implications are of carrying the idea across media like that.

  2. I think the 21st century African American have achieved the freedom that Jacobs and Martin Luther King Jr. strived for: the freedom of speech and movement. For Jacobs and Martin, their fight was a fight against the legal system that stifled their freedom. However, I think 21st century African Americans may be striving for a cultural freedom where their urgency is respected. By cultural freedom I mean having the power to live under your black skin without feeling like you are losing something because of your choice to be African American. Cultural freedom is living inspite of your identity (in this case being black).

    Indeed, its important to note that African Americans are not the only group that experiences this lack of cultural freedom. It is a fundamental part of our society that at some point the actions of one individuals are dictated by one’s identity. I think the problem arises when only one groups within society experiences this on a more frequent basis.

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