Why does Richard Wright use "sorrow songs," including musical notations, and how does he draw a relationship to history through them?

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Songs are used in Richard Wright's narrative to soothe Aunt Sue's anxieties, and to encourage her in her belief that God has sent her sorrows to strengthen her soul for eternity. She sings the songs of the slaves in the fields many years ago.

While Aunt Sue presses her laundry, she thinks of her sons, one of whom is in jail, having been arrested for his Communist connections. She worries about Johnny Boy, also, who has not yet arrived home. To keep herself focused upon her work and to not become overly anxious, she sings an old spiritual, taught to her by her mother, who sang it as she worked in the fields,

He's the Lily of the Valley,
Bright 'n' Mawnin' Star
He's the Fairest of Ten Thousands
t mah soul....

Aunt Sue recalls the lonely and haunting melodies that her mother sang and later in her life "as the years had filled with gall, she had learned their deep meaning." In part, the trials that she endures are not dissimilar from those of the oppressed who struggled to free themselves from slavery or Jim Crow laws. As a girl growing up in the Deep South, she believed that she must endure repression at the hands of the white man in order to earn her reward in heaven. Now that her sons have embraced Communism because they believe that it offers them social equality in a society in which they are presently marginalized, she sings so that she can remain strong for them. The songs are part of the history of black endurance, and Aunt Sue seeks strength from them. 

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