Critical Overview

(Poetry for Students)

Discussion about “Go Down, Moses” often centers on the degree to which the song should be considered as a metaphor for the escape from slavery. Some historians believe that “Moses” in the song refers to Harriet Tubman, one of the leaders of the Underground Railroad, a group of abolitionists, both black and white, who formed a network of transportation and safe houses that assisted slaves in their escape from Southern plantations. This interpretation receives full treatment in Harriet Tubman, The Moses of Her People by Sarah Bradford. In this reading, Egypt and the Pharaoh represent the plantation and the slave owner, and of course, the Israelites represent the African-American slaves themselves. Among those who agree with this interpretation are Bernard Katz, John Lovell, Irwin Silber, Russell Ames, and Earl Conrad. Conrad writes, “Negro slaves chanted thinly-disguised songs of protest set to the meter of spirituals [such as] ‘Go Down, Moses, ’ the fighting song of Harriet Tubman who came like Moses to redeem her black kinsman from the ‘Egypt-land of the South.’” In Black Song Lovell reports that Denmark Vesey, who lead an attempted slave uprising in Charleston in 1822, used this song as a signal for fugitive slaves. Lovell credits “Go Down, Moses” with “filling every listener with a pervasive contempt for oppression and a resounding enthusiasm for freedom.” He speaks of the importance of Moses to the slaves: “they lavished...

(The entire section is 352 words.)