This song has become popular in churches. Why? Breaking bread = communion. But this song may not have originally been about communion for enslaved African Americans. What do you think it was about?
What does it mean to “break bread together”? Share a meal; communion, spiritual nourishment. When and where do people usually break bread together? Meals, celebrations, family get-togethers, gatherings, etc.
How do many lines end? “On our knees.” What does “on our knees” mean? Prayer, worship, humbleness. How is facing east practiced in some religions? In the Western Hemisphere, Muslims face east toward Mecca. Christian churches face east (the rising sun is a symbol of the risen Christ).
Most slaveholding colonies passed laws against slaves congregating. If they wanted to meet, they had to do it in secret. What purpose might this song have served? A call to a secret meeting.
Why were meetings of enslaved African Americans prohibited? Fear of uprisings.
This recording provides a historically accurate rendition of how a group of fervent African American slaves might have sounded. With untrained voices and no accompaniment, the spontaneous embellishments and exclamations demonstrate the enthusiasm that underscored the singing of this song. Whether this enthusiasm was the result of religious fervor or anticipation of an upcoming meeting, or both, is left to speculation.
“Let Us Break Bread Together” is an African American folk song passed down through oral tradition in South Carolina’s coastal communities. First transcribed by Nicholas George Ballanta-Taylor, an African ethnomusicologist, and published in his Negro Spirituals of Helena’s Island (1925), it has become a hymn sung in many churches throughout the United States and beyond.
The text, as Ballanta-Taylor transcribed it, appears as follows:
Let us [Ah] praise Gawd togedder on our [mah] knees. Let us [Ah] praise Gawd togedder on our [mah] knees.
When ah falls on mah knees Wid mah face to de risin' sun; Oh, Lawd, hab mercy on me.
Ballanta-Taylor suggests this spiritual may have been sung as early as 1676 when, after several slave uprisings, the Colony of Virginia (soon followed by other colonies) prohibited African Americans from meeting together. In this context, the song’s use of the plural (“let us,” “our knees,” etc.) might suggests a gathering in violation of these laws. Enslaved African Americans sometimes met secretly for worship after midnight or at dawn on Sundays, when their white enslavers were sleeping. Ballanta-Taylor points out that, despite the reference to breaking bread, the song’s lyrics do not appear to refer to holy communion, for communion doesn’t always take place in the early morning or require participants to face east (both of which are indicated in the line “wid mah face to de risin’ sun”). Instead, perhaps, the lyrics refer to Islamic or other religious practices from Africa that lived on in these secret meetings.
Slave Worship on a North Carolina Plantation drawing from the Illustrated London News, December 5, 1863.