The way I grew up, you’d think my family would have sang the Black National Anthem before every Thanksgiving and Christmas meal. In reality, despite all the things I knew about Black history and all the many times I’d watched Roots, Shaka Zulu and the entire series of Eyes on the Prize, I had never heard the Black National Anthem, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing, sung by any Black person I knew. I didn’t hear it (or sing it) until my freshmen year of college at Xavier University of Louisiana at the beginning of a basketball game.
I distinctly recall standing up, putting my hand over my heart, and belting out the first line:
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring…
And then pretty much him-hawing my way through the rest of it:
….cing RISE, la la la la la SKIES
La la la la la la la la la
SING A SONG….la la la la la la….
I was EMBARRASSED. I questioned both my Blackness and my dedication to my people. How did I not know the words to this song? Then I looked around and noticed all of the other students among me who were also him-hawing their way through the song. I relaxed. If my Black card was going to be revoked that day then so were a lot of other people’s.
Perhaps one of us should have suggested that some Xavier faculty member display the lyrics on an overhead projector the way it’s done at church—though it is crazy that every Black person knows all the words to His Eye is On the Sparrow without ever having had to read the lyrics from a projection or a hymnal.
Just as everyone loves that one Maze song without actually knowing the lyrics, I’m willing to bet cash money that no living Black person today under the age of 85 knows all the lyrics to all three verses of Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing. I’ve been to countless predominantly Black gatherings, both inside and outside of the house of the Lord, and this song is sung exactly the way I sang it above. I seriously believe that it sounds like a complete song because each one of us has chosen to memorize choice words here and there, AND if there is enough of us gathered together then we all complete the lyrics with our collective knowledge of it. Kind of like the way all of the fractured instrumentation in the dancehall version of Shaggy’s Boombastic combines to make an intoxicating rhythm.
But I digress.
The Black National Anthem was written by James Weldon Johnson—who was a friggin’ beast of a man. Talkin’ ‘bout THIS man made so much history! Born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida, dude was an attorney (first Black to pass the bar in Florida), a US diplomat, an educator, an activist, a novelist, an ethno-musicologist, a songwriter and a poet. And according to an excerpt from a brief summary of his life:
Admired for his able, judicious and creative approach to leadership in an era stained by virulent forms of racism, Johnson, fluent in Spanish and French, was the first African American to serve as the United States consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua. After his period of service in the consular corps, in 1915 Johnson joined the staff of the NAACP. Rising quickly through the leadership ranks, a year later he became the first African American to serve as field secretary and later as executive secretary of the NAACP. As executive secretary of the NAACP, Johnson organized in Manhattan the historic Silent March of 1917 to protest the national crime of lynching. During his tenure as executive secretary of the NAACP, Johnson also led a national campaign against lynching that garnered significant congressional support in the form of the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill of 1921, a bill that would have made lynching a national crime, but it failed to become law because of insufficient votes in the Senate. Other significant achievements during Johnson’s tenure as head of the NAACP include the exposure of the brutality of the Marines during the United State’s occupation of Haiti, and the national campaign to support the Houston Martyrs: the soldiers of the 24th U.S. Infantry sentenced to death or life imprisonment for the 1917 uprising in Houston, Texas.
Like…when did the man sleep?
He wrote the poem Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing in 1899 when he was asked to give a speech on the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. As this Washington Post article notes:
Instead of preparing an ordinary speech, Johnson decided to write a poem. He began with a simple but powerful line, a call to action: “Lift ev’ry voice and sing.” He paced back and forth on his front porch, agonizing over the lines of the poem. After finishing each stanza, he handed over the lyrics to his classically trained brother, John Rosamond Johnson, who put the words to music, according to an account from James Weldon Johnson, recalled in the book “Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora” by Shana L. Redmond.
As he wrote the words, evoking the struggle and resilience of his ancestors, he began to weep. “I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so,” Johnson recounted. The following year, a chorus of 500 schoolchildren performed the song at the Lincoln celebration. The song quickly took off, becoming a rallying cry for Black communities in the South, or as one observer noted at the time, “a collective prayer.”
For your information—and to pretty much guarantee that I have no excuse not to memorize it—here are the lyrics to the Black National Anthem:
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening 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 star is cast.
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,
Thou who has 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.