by Laura Beach Byrch
I got shoes, you got shoes, all God’s children got shoes. When I get to heaven gonna put on my shoes, gonna walk all over God’s heaven, heaven, Gonna walk all over God’s heaven. Everybody talking about heaven ain’t goin’ there, heaven, heaven.
In the few short lines of this well-known spiritual, enslaved Africans in pre-Civil War America proclaimed radical truths about themselves and their understanding of God as a God of justice. First, they affirmed that they were God’s children, who would one day be with God in heaven. Second, that God would meet every need and judge the hearts of all, showing a reversal of the slaveholding society’s notions of who true Christians were and were not.
Those who sang this song took to heart the stories of Genesis 1-2: that humankind is made in the image of God and tasked with wisely leading the world. Human beings are entrusted with the responsibility to help shape the world according to God’s will. Slaveholders who called themselves Christians were greatly abusing this authority and perverting notions of what was God’s will, but through this song, enslaved Africans claimed authority to narrate what God’s will truly was and is.
Writing about this spiritual, Howard Thurman said:
This is one of the authentic songs of protest. It was sung in anticipation of a time that even yet has not fully come– a time when there shall be no slave row in the church, no gallery set aside for the slave, no special place, no segregation, no badge of racial and social stigma, but complete freedom of movement. Even at that far-off moment in the past, these early singers put their fingers on the most vulnerable spot in Christianity and democracy. The wide, free range of his spirit sent him in his song beyond all barriers. In God’s presence at least there would be freedom; slavery is no part of the purpose or the plan of God.Thurman, Howard, Deep River: Reflections on the Religious Insight of Certain of the Negro Spirituals Harper and Brothers: 1955, p.48.
Despite the harsh realities of slavery, where plantation Christianity was twisted and weaponized by white masters to try to keep their black slaves subordinate and submissive, black communities of enslaved peoples still encountered the God of justice, who revealed to them a message of dignity, equality and belovedness that they put to song. It was a message that affirmed that those who were suffering under slavery were God’s children, made in God’s image, and that one day not only would their needs be met, but there would be freedom to roam all over heaven. No more passes or papers needed, in fact, the preachers and adherents of slaveholder religion– with their talk of heaven and lack of Christ-like behavior– they would not even make it to heaven.
Holding in their hearts and minds this vision of the boundaryless freedom that awaited them in heaven, individuals who were enslaved found courage to run away to earthly freedom in the North.
My earliest memory of this song is of singing it in children’s choir at church. Looking back, our “Cherub Choir”, made up of little white smiling faces and tiny feet wearing patent leather shoes, really had no business singing this song. We couldn’t really imagine what it would be like to not have shoes, much less to not be allowed to have shoes. We had closets full of shoes. Sure, our choir director and parents tried to explain that this song was about God wanting everyone to have what they need. But I don’t remember any mention of why the song was created or the dynamics between white slaveholders and enslaved Africans that led to a people singing about shoes and freedom in heaven. We certainly left out the part about “everybody talking about heaven ain’t goin there.”
Yet, maybe learning that song as a child began to shape in me a vision that my cultural ancestors could not see– the truth that every human being, and especially the enslaved people who created the song, were made in the image of God, had inherent worth and dignity and deserved basic things likes shoes and freedom…not only in heaven, but in the here and now.
Hush harbors today, as during the time of slavery, continue to proclaim this message and push against dominant society’s structural hierarchies of leadership. Saying “All God’s Children Got Shoes” is a way of claiming dignity that isn’t acknowledged in dominant culture. Even though white men didn’t give black preachers authority to proclaim the Word as it was revealed to them in the antebellum South, black preachers and believers knew “they had shoes”. They learned the stories of Scripture and knew God was not who the slaveholder preachers were trying to convince them God was. They had to trust their own voices, their own interpretation, even as white slaveholders sought to shame and silence them. In hush harbors, they were empowered to freely interpret and preach the Word without authority from any institution or governing body. God gave each individual the dignity and ability to understand and proclaim God’s truth. Men, women, and even children were seen as leaders and valued members with important contributions to make.
Our churches and communities can begin to live into the notion of “All God’s Children Got Shoes” when we:
Questions to consider: