Thursday, February 01, 2007

Lift Every Voice And Sing: The Black National Anthem Revisited

January 15th, 2007. It's Martin Luther King's birthday, a celebratory time marked with long parades and spirited speeches in predominantly black communities, but I'm in no mood for singing Negro Spirituals and "We Shall Overcome." So I turn on the car radio. Stevie Wonder, Whitney Houston, and several of their musical peers sing the classic King Holiday song. Singing along puts me in a good mood. As I drive along MLK Boulevard in a black neighborhood rich with what went wrong with integration, another song plays. This time a local choir's rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Negro National Anthem, fills the car. I again sing along until the words don't come to me anymore, which isn’t a long time at all. I can’t even make it to the chorus. Damn, what a shame or is it? Should I be expected to know it word for word? Lift Every Voice is a part of our history, but is it relevant in the present or to our future?

Many of our parents and grandparents learned Lift Every Voice as children in the south’s segregated schools, according to my Big Mama. Her generation knew it like they knew their names and taught it to their children. They understood the relevance of each stanza because they lived it and knew some that died in the process. Lift Every Voice was their Star Spangled Banner, sung while standing and with sincere emotion during special occasions. And now nearly seventy years after learning it, some still know every word.

But in 2007, I wonder how many African-American teens and young children even know this song exists? How many know the importance of it? We get all choked up watching Nay Nay and Raheem sing "I Believe I Can Fly" at family reunions, but don't bother to teach them who paved the way so R. Kelly could freely take flight in his heart and mind. If we don’t care, why should the kids? And if we don't properly teach our rich history to them, who will? Hollywood? I think not!


The year was 1900. In his hometown of Jacksonville, Florida, school principal and attorney, James Weldon Johnson, was asked to speak before an audience at an Abraham Lincoln celebration. Opting not to give a typical speech, he decided to do a poem instead. When he became pressed for time, James asked his brother, music teacher, John Rosamond for help. James created the words and John, the music. In a short amount of time, the brothers crafted a timeless song that spoke to the spirit and struggles of a proud people ready to fully explore “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”.

Performed originally by a children's choir, the song became a tradition in black churches across the country. And after James Weldon Johnson became Executive Secretary of the NAACP in 1920, Lift Every Voice was adopted as the organization's official song.

So, that's the song's history. In 2007 does it still apply?

Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.


(Here's the part where most of us get amnesia!)
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

(Who's willing to turn off the radio for just one day and sing a new song of hope and faith? No lyrics of violence, disrespect, wasted riches, drug abuse, nor empty sex. Is this generation ready to reset its mental iPods?)

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.


Stony the road we trod; bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?


We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered;
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.


(Chattel slavery, Jim Crow, lynchings, murder…inhumane tools used to kill our ancestor's spirit, kill their hopes before they could be born. Yet, they managed to survive. Not only survive but surpassed America's expectations. What's our excuse now?)

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast by Thy might; Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,
Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.


(Just where have our feet strayed especially in poor black neighborhoods? The liquor house, crack house, or the ho' house—one block after another of escapisms and distractions from fulfilling God's true purpose. But even in the church house we seem distracted.

And how do you stay true to a land that sold your ancestors into captivity and continues to destroy it's own for European profit, yet faithful to a land that failed you when the levy broke? Does the heart of the African-American qualify for dual citizenship? Maybe it’s time for a new Black national anthem, or have we already overcome? Really, have we progressed so far in this country that songs Lift Every Voice are no longer needed?

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