To date, many poems and songs have been written to document the mistreatment of black and brown people and people among marginalized communities; many works created solely for the purpose of amplifying the menacing shadow of America’s past (and present) so that people of color can one day be truly liberated and validated. These poems and songs are often written to project hope when there is none; when the future is or seems bleak. That’s why “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is such an important vocal confirmation of the Black experience.
Raise every voice and sing,
Ring with the harmonies of freedom;
Let our joy rise
High as the skies,
Let it resound like the rolling sea.
Sing a song of faith that the dark past taught us
Sing a song of hope that the present has brought us;
Started against the rising sun of our new day,
Let’s march on until victory is achieved.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written to celebrate the birthday of former President Abraham Lincoln James Weldon Johnson, a man of many firsts that would enable black Americans after him to continue the struggle to lighten his vision of freedom. Johnson was a director, songwriter, consul and eventually field secretary of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, becoming a prominent figure who used his merits and art to draw attention to racism and reduce incidents of injustice, lynching and segregation . . His work would later influence The Harlem Renaissance and unite the black community through one new National anthem. The song was composed by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson, one of the most important composers of black music and black theater of his time.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is not a hymn written to replace our revered national anthem; it is a continuation of the methods black Americans used to triumph over the horrors they were exposed to during slavery and then during the Jim Crow era, when black voices were persistently denied and banned. “Singing as a form of communication is deeply rooted in African American culture. It started with the African slaves kidnapped and shipped across the Atlantic Ocean during the Middle Passage. Slaves from different countries, tribes and cultures used song as a way to communicate during the journey. They were able to search for relatives, countrymen and women through songs, ”wrote Kenyatta Berry in this article. This song is a constant proof of Black trauma, identity and freedom.
The canon of the hymn remains steadfast, as there are a number of them petitions to make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ sing in a different way national events. And in an effort to unite the country, US Congressman James Clyburn even has recently submitted an invoice to make ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ the nation’s new national anthem.
If only Johnson were there today to witness this and the voices that continue his hopes through national and local performances: LeVar Burton, Beyoncé, Kim Weston, Alicia Keys, Jon Batiste, and many more.
Enjoy the full Johnson song here.
Photo by Chris Benson on Unsplash