Title: All God’s Children Got Shoes
Artist: Ruth Starr Rose
Size: 12.5″ x 16.875″
Credit: Gift of the Harmon Foundation
Description: In the center of the image is a female angel floating at the bottom of a staircase which is to her left/the viewer’s right. The staircase on the right curves and winds up towards the sky and has seven people ascending, each wearing a pair of winged shoes. The angel in the center is handing a man, who has climbed up to the sky on a ladder, a winged shoe. To the man’s left is a woman who is putting on a new pair of winged shoes, which a male angel in a suit is helping her with as they sit on benches. Above the male angel and woman putting on her new shoes is another angel, with a net, who is trying to catch one (or more) of the seven shoes flying above the central female angel.
All God’s Children Got Shoes is based on an African American spiritual of the same name, sometimes written as “All God’s Chillun Got Shoes” or simply “I Got Shoes.” The song can, in part, be read as a form of protest. The lyrics describe various things that the enslaved individuals may not have had, such as shoes, that they would get once they got to Heaven:
“I got shoes, you got shoes,
All God’s children got shoes.
When I get to Heav’n gonna put on my shoes
Gonna walk all over God’s Heav’n, Heav’n, Heav’n,
Everybody talkin’ ’bout Heav’n ain’t goin’ there,
Heav’n, Heav’n, Heav’n,
Gonna walk all over God’s Heav’n.”
A notable line that marks it as a protest song is “Everybody’ talkin’ ’bout Heav’n ain’t goin’ there,” referencing the slave owners who were so-called Christians that attended church to sing about Heaven, God, and Jesus, but would then return to the plantation after church.
A story, documented by Langston Hughes and Arna Wendell Bontemps in the 1958 book, The Book of Negro Folklore, might also play a part in the history of this spiritual. The story is told by Caesar Grant, a carter and laborer on John’s Island in South Carolina, who had supposedly heard the story from an old wood sawyer that was over 90 years old and “remember[ed] a great many strange things.” The story is called “All God’s Chillen had Wings” and begins with the information that at one point, all Africans were able to fly like birds, and while they still retained the power of flight, their wings were taken away “owing to their many transgressions.” They lived scattered among the sea islands and, located on one, was a particularly cruel master who would work his enslaved individuals until they died.
Among these was a young woman who’d just had her first baby and was sent back into the field before she could recover. With the rate she was forced to work and the heat, she ended up falling, which angered the slave driver who whipped her until she stood. She spoke to an old man near her in a tongue that the driver couldn’t understand before continuing to work. It wasn’t much longer before the woman fell once again and the process repeated, her being whipped and then speaking to the old man. When it happened a third time, she spoke to the old man and asked if it was time yet and the old man replied that it was, and the woman took to the sky, flying over the fields to freedom.
This happened several times to multiple people; they would fall from being driven so hard in the heat, they would speak with the old man, and then they would fly away to freedom. Soon, the slave driver and the overseer called for the old man to be beat, alleging that he was causing the people to have this ability. Instead, the old man simply called out to the other enslaved individuals working in the fields and “they all remembered what they had forgotten, and recalled the power which once had been theirs” before they leapt into the air and flew away with the old man. Caesar Grant admits that he doesn’t know where they went, nor what the old man told them to help them remember, but he knew that “the men went clapping their hands; and the women went singing.”
The Charioteers. “All God’s Chillun Got Shoes.” Internet Archive, 1939. https://archive.org/details/78_all-gods-chillun-got-shoes_the-charioteers_gbia0100056a.
Grant, Caesar. “All God’s Chillen Had Wings.” Essay. In The Book of Negro Folklore, edited by Langston Hughes and Arna Wendell Bontemps, 62–65. Dodd, Meade & Company, 1959.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “The Book of American Negro Spirituals” New York Public Library Digital Collections. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/6a771c60-bbff-0134-7046-00505686a51c