Seeing constellations as a way of remembering history: Following the drinking gourd.

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The Eldest’s study of the Civil War led us through the Underground Railroad earlier this week. It’s a topic I love to explore because it demonstrates how the actions of a few determined, good people made a difference in the lives of those African-Americans who ran from slavery.

People trying to escape slavery could not afford to ask most Americans how to get North. Asking directions in a society that held no laws to protect slaves was a risk that usually led to getting caught. The man or woman on the run cannot rely on the friendliness of common folks. Instead, the slaves fleeing towards freedom devised clues and secret codes to help them find the direction of “North” on their journey.

One clue was that moss tends to grow on the North side of trees. So, in long excursions through wooded areas, they could look to the trees to determine their direction.

Out in the fields and plains, however, there were few trees to consult. In treeless areas, these brave individuals consulted the skies. They knew that migrating birds flew north in the summer- so they followed the large groups of birds heading north. They also knew of a star called the “North Star”, frequently called “Polaris” in astronomy books and charts.

Unlike other stars, the North Star never changes position. It always points to the north. If they could find a way to remember how it pointed North, then they could use the North Star as a guide in unwooded areas.

An easy way to remember the North Star’s location was by looking for the “drinking gourd”. Since many used hollowed-out gourds to dip and drink water, the Big Dipper resembled a drinking gourd to them. Two stars on the edge of the gourd always point to the North Star. By finding the “drinking gourd” in the sky, people traveling at night could always find the North Star.

Escaping slaves like Harriet Tubman, James Pennington, and Josiah Henson probably followed the Drinking Gourd to freedom. The song “Follow the Drinking Gourd” helped keep the memories and instructions of how to follow the invisible and very secret Underground Railroad alive for slaves in the South. The topic was such a neat one that the Eldest played the song on the pinao as I sang the lyrics in a pajama-attired evening performance for all. Then we set out to seek the Drinking Gourd itself on the front lawn. Even Gnome spotted the North Star in the gourd!

Drinking Gourd sheet music (PDF)

Follow the Drinking Gourd (PDF)

FIND THE DRINKING GOURD ACTIVITY To find the North Star, begin by looking for the Big Dipper constellation. Use the two small stars that form the edge of the cup away from the handle. Follow the line these two stars create to find the North Star.

I like to imagine that someday, far in the future, the kids will be stargazing as their thoughts inevitably return to the many African-Americans who dared follow the drinking gourd in the hopes of finding freedom from the injustice and horror of slavery. These are the stories in the stars- if we only agree to see them.


Follow the Drinking Gourd, a website about the history of the song and motif
Follow the Drinking Gourd video sing-along (Sing An American Story)

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