10/30/2014 01:39 pm ET Updated Dec 30, 2014

"Fear Is a Little Man": How Spirituals and Protest Songs Vanquish Fear

Is it getting harder or easier to frighten you these days? What was once scary at Halloween - ghosts, zombies, vampires, spiders - doesn't really scare us anymore. OK, maybe the spiders.

A little bit.

What's really scary is Life. Ebola. Mass shootings in schools. Racial unrest. Russian aggression in the Ukraine. ISIS. Drought. Starvation. Fracking.

How can TV or the movies compete with what too many people confront on a daily basis? I wouldn't like to see one of my kids on a reality TV series with Honey Boo Boo. And I wouldn't like to share a tanning bed with Rep. John Boehner, but even The Walking Dead pales when you consider what's happening in West Africa right now.

Polls show that many of us live in a perpetual low-grade sort of fear fever.

It doesn't even have to be a rational fear. If you believe it to be fearsome, then it is.

Perhaps this is a good time to look at how the world's most oppressed people handled fear. Nobody had more to fear than African- American slaves in the American South. Right through the 1960s, to be black meant to live in fear. You had no rights. None. No one would help you. Those who owned you could do with you as they pleased. The movie 12 Years a Slave only touched on what it was like to be a non-person in a sadistic society.

And in the years that followed the Emancipation Proclamation, save for the short summer of Reconstruction, to be black in the South was equally dangerous. No policeman would respond if you were raped or your brother was lynched. No jury would hear your case against a white man. Violence against African Americans was systematic and loaded into the DNA of many Southerners.

And yet, as I study spirituals and protest songs and freedom songs, I don't hear fear. And it's not a Pollyanna, whistling in the dark kind of bravery. It's an encoded, transcendent way of dealing with fear.

Many of the spirituals, as best as we can tell through the filter of time, had a "double-voicedness." They were both religious ("I'm going to Heaven to see Jesus someday") and secretly defiant at the same time. What the words really meant was, "I'm going to cross the Ohio River and be free someday." The uncoded words couldn't be said out loud, of course, because reprisals were swift, painful and sometimes deadly. Remember: This was a culture that mandated death for a black man with a map or who could read.

So, according to John Lovell Jr. and the other great chroniclers and interpreters of spirituals, the slaves (and, later, the children and grandchildren of slaves) dealt with fear in their spirituals.

They did this by personalizing that fear. "Satan" or "the devil" or "Death" or even the cruel overseer or the slave-owner himself became characters in their songs. Instead of some amorphous mass of evil, that evil, that fear became personified. Here are some examples:

What makes Ole Satan follow me so?
Satan haint nottin' at all for to do wid me.
What make ole Satan hate me so?
Because he got me once and he let me go.

Stand back, Satan, let me come by.

I an' Satan had a race, Hallelu, hallelu!

The Devil he thought he had me fast
But I thought I'd break his chains at last.

If you want to see de debbil run,
Just pull de trigger o' de gospel gun.

But one lyric in particular caught me from the first time I read it:

Oh Death, he is a little man,
And he goes from do' to do'.

Death/Satan isn't a monster in the spirituals. He's a "little man." Someone you can deal with on a personal, intimate level. Someone you can overcome. The spiritual continues:

He kills some souls and he wounded some,
And lef' some souls to pray.

Death, he ain't nothin' but a robber, don't you see?
Death came to my house, he didn't stay long.

What does Death (or Satan or fear) rob you of? Peace of mind. Serenity. Fear is the expectation that something bad is going to happen. You play the possible scenario over and over in your mind. Each time, it gets a little worse. But Fear is a little man. You can beat him. He has no power over you.

Another spiritual:

Soon one mawnin', Death come creepin' in yo' room.

Why does Death have to creep? Why doesn't he just kick down the door and come striding in?
Because Death is a little man, too. He only gets bigger if you let him.

I was troubled by nightmares in junior high and high school. My parents tried everything - including books and various counselors and therapists. The denizens of my dreams were dark and shadowy things, spider-like, implacable, relentless. Finally, a very wise pastor in East Texas, the Rev. Raymond Parker, advised me to write about my fears. He knew I liked to write fiction, so he suggested I "capture" these dark fears in stories. In the years that followed, I wrote two (unpublished) horror novels. The protagonists of these stories are the fear-creatures from my dreams. Once I wrote them down, they lost (much) of their power over me. And, because they were my novels, they were defeated in the end.

Fear is a little man. He came to my house, but he didn't stay long.

In the civil rights movement, the freedom songs did much the same thing. The sheriff might have all power in Albany, Birmingham or Selma, but protesters updated the spirituals to sing, "Oh, Pritchett, Oh Kelly," "Ain't gonna let Bull Connor turn me 'round," "I ain't afraid of your jail" or "Tell Jim Clark I'm gonna let it shine" from "This Little Light of Mine."

In this season of Halloween and All Saint's Day and the Day of the Dead, when fear and death and Ebola and terrorists are all around us, perhaps it is a good time to capture our fears. To bring them to the light of day. Light is, after all, the greatest disinfectant. When you name your fears, you can address what is fearful about them. Once you name them, you can then begin to own them.

Want King Jesus stan' my bond,
Way een duh middle-night.
When death comes creepin' een duh room,
Want King Jesus stan' my bond.

Robert Darden is the author of Nothing But Love in God's Water: Black Sacred Music from the Civil War to the Civil Rights Movement (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014)