The Afro-American Symphony is not a tone picture of the “New Negro.” It portrays that class of American Negroes who still cling to the old standards and traditions; those sons of the soil who differ, but little, if at all, from their forebears of antebellum days.
These are an humble people. Their wants are few and are generally childlike. Theirs are lives of utter simplicity. Therefore no complex or elaborate scheme of harmonization would prove befitting in a musical picture of them. ‘Tis only the simpler harmonies, such as those employed, that can accurately portray them.
From the hearts of these people sprang Blues, plaintive songs reminiscent of African tribal chants. I do not hesitate to assert that Blues are more purely Negroid in character than very many Spirituals. And I have employed as the basic theme of the symphony a melody in the Blues style. This theme appears in each movement.
–William Grant Still, 1931
I think there are a wide range of interpretations that could be read into it. I really had no program in mind. I wanted, above all, to write music that would be recognizable as being in the idiom employed [by the American Negro] or recognized, I should say, as that of the American Negro. It was the object that I desired most of all.
–William Grant Still, 1964