Signifyin’ in “I Hope My Mother Will Be There”

“I hope my mother will be there in that wonderful world on high”

This is the opening line to a spiritual that my friend Hal Bush shared with me. It’s one of the songs we’ll be performing at the Black History Celebration this weekend. Spirituals are a tradition of American music that is both beautiful and tragic. The texts of Spirituals  are often misunderstood by modern listeners, and this is not an accident. American slaves used a kind of code language that was designed to say something without saying anything. They could communicate their true feelings in front of their oppressors while maintaining a kind of plausible deniability. Henry Louis Gates Jr. calls this kind of language “signifyin‘” (thank you, wikipedia!).

The face value meaning of the song is a longing to go to heaven after physical death in order to be reunited with our already deceased relatives. This meaning is pretty clear and it’s a good thing to sing about. Perhaps the “Christian” slave owners would even relate to this sentiment. However, in the life of the slave, there were more immediate causes of family separation than death, causes that related to their oppressed status. Slave families were torn apart through the sale and relocation of mothers, sisters, brothers, children, etc. A slave was likely to have been separated from loved ones and likely to never see them again in this life. There was another meaning to “that wonderful world on high” as well. Going “on high” might have meant escape to the Northern States or to Canada. They were not going to sing about either of these topics explicitly, but under the cover of “signifyin'” they could boast with confidence about escaping their unjust captivity and the hope of reunion with their family in the flesh. Understanding the song this way means that it takes on a deeper cry for justice and freedom for today and not just a hope of an afterlife.

Oh, I will be there, will be there
Oh, I will be there, will be there
With the palms of victory
Crowns of glory you shall wear
In that wonderful world on high

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