How Enslaved Black People Followed The Stars To Freedom

large space telescope
Briona Lamback
February 21, 2023

“Follow the drinking gourd” is a phrase that our people once put all their faith in. It was a guiding light they turned to on some of their darkest nights.

As Black people escaped enslavement, they used the Drinking Gourd, a code name for the Big Dipper, to locate the North Star. Along Underground Railroad routes, leaders like Harriett Tubman used “signal songs” like “Follow the Drinking Gourd” to secretly convey detailed instructions about pathways to freedom.

Knowledge of the stars was one of the few things stolen West Africans brought with them across the Atlantic that was not taken away. Understanding the night sky became crucial to survival because making the wrong turn was deadly.

Today, only about two percent of astronomers are Black. But this is ancestral work. Studies show our health can benefit from embracing the stars by acting as a form of stress release and helping with mindfulness.

Many enslaved people relied on the stars, nature, and their intuitions to guide them through to liberation. Celestial wayfinding is part of who we are, and when we’re in our darkest hours, we must remember to keep our heads up and eyes focused on our own personal North Stars.

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