Little of beauty has America given the world save the rude grandeur God himself stamped on her bosom; the human spirit in this new world has expressed itself in vigor and ingenuity rather than in beauty. And so by fateful chance the Negro folk-song—the rhythmic cry of the slave—stands to-day not simply as the sole American music, but as the most beautiful expression of human experience born this side the seas. It has been neglected, it has been, and is, half despised, and above all it has been persistently mistaken and misunderstood; but notwithstanding, it still remains as the singular spiritual heritage of the nation and the greatest gift of the Negro people.
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk, 1903
These words are taken from the final essay in Souls on the Sorrow Songs, or the Slave Spirituals. He regards the spirit of African American culture as most epitomized by these anonymous songs composed improvisationally by the slaves, themselves, as they became Christians in a New World of deprivation and torment. While he isn't yet ready to include all of African American music and culture in his highest claims for the "Sorrow Songs," nonetheless he poses the question and the problem of racial differences one last time in this essay.
The silently growing assumption of this age is that the probation of races is past, and that the backward races of to-day are of proven inefficiency and not worth the saving. Such an assumption is the arrogance of peoples irreverent toward Time and ignorant of the deeds of men. A thousand years ago such an assumption, easily possible, would have made it difficult for the Teuton to prove his right to life. Two thousand years ago such dogmatism, readily welcome, would have scouted the idea of blond races ever leading civilization. So wofully unorganized is sociological knowledge that the meaning of progress, the meaning of "swift" and "slow" in human doing, and the limits of human perfectability, are veiled, unanswered sphinxes on the shores of science. Why should AEschylus have sung two thousand years before Shakespeare was born? Why has civilization flourished in Europe, and flickered, flamed, and died in Africa? So long as the world stands meekly dumb before such questions, shall this nation proclaim its ignorance and unhallowed prejudices by denying freedom of opportunity to those who brought the Sorrow Songs to the Seats of the Mighty?
Also taken from "Of the Sorrow Songs" in Souls of Black Folk.
African American music has a tendency toward spiritual inflection and in such cases listening is like being in a time machine. In some cases it seems almost as though the chords or the tone transports the listener back into the history, in particular of slavery and Jim Crow persecution.