Lift Every Voice and Sing (the Black National Anthem)
This song/poem is divided into three stanzas. As alluded to in the trivia section of this post, it was inspired by the experience of slavery which Black people endured in the United States. Or another way of putting it is that it is sung from the perspective of individuals who were at one time, generationally speaking, enslaved. And as we know that even post-slavery – especially back in 1900, which was less than 50 years after slavery was outlawed – that African-Americans still deal with many race-based injustices in the United States.
So basically, they are ‘lifting their voices’, as noted at the beginning of the song, in recognition of the pursuit of “liberty”. As aforementioned, such has yet to be actually realized. However, they have learned “faith” via their “dark past”, and “the present has brought” them “hope”. And as such, they plan to keep “march(ing) on ’til victory”, i.e. freedom, is indeed secured.
The second stanza is a lot more poetic. But ultimately it speaks to the idea that African-Americans have suffered a lot. Indeed back in the early 20th century Jim Crow and segregation, i.e. the systems of African-American oppression which came after slavery, were very much in full swing. So the people knew that even the victories they have achieved up until that point – i.e. slavery being outlawed – were so due to the suffering of their forefathers. Indeed they are still met with considerable repression in the present. However, in acknowledgement of the struggle, they continue to press on.
Meanwhile the final stanza takes on a more-religious approach. Here, the singers decide to address God directly. And basically, what they are saying is that He has been instrumental in their progress they have achieved thus far. Moreover, they anticipate more victories in the name of freedom to be forthcoming. And when they are achieved, they do not want to be so caught up in worldly matters that they forget the suffering, discipline and faith which got them to that point in the first place.
And finally, the song ends on what has been deemed a patriotic note. For not only are the vocalists proclaiming their ideology to stay “true to (their) God” but also to their “native land”. And in terms of the latter, said land is considered by many listeners to be the United States itself. So basically, that statement is considered to be indicative of the vocalists’ commitment to America.
So classifying this song as ‘the African-American national anthem’ is spot-on. It commences with this group of oppressed citizens acknowledging their troubled past. However, they continue to struggle for freedom. And in the midst of doing so, they have not forgotten the faith which got them through the hard times. Neither have they forsaken their commitment to the land of their citizenship.
Writing Credits for “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
The lyrics to this song were written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900. He originally created it as a poem. The poem’s music was subsequently written by composer, J. Rosamond Johnson. Both Weldon and Rosamond were brothers.
The first time it was actually performed was on the date of 12 February 1900, as recited by a group of 500 students (with Weldon Johnson being a teacher at the time) in Jacksonville, Florida. And what they were celebrating was the birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, whom if he were still alive at that time would have been 91 years old. In fact “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written specifically for that event.
Success of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”
The Johnson brothers never expected “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to blow up. In fact after the aforementioned event, they had pretty much forgotten about it. However, some years later, they came to find out that the tune had blown up “over the South and in some other parts of the country”. And J. W. Johnson attributed this phenomenon to the fact that even though he and his brother may have cast it to the side, the students whom they taught it to kept reciting it.
The NAACP dubbed this song “the Negro national hymn” as far back as 1919. In more recent years, it has become known as “the Black National Anthem”. And throughout the century since being adopted as such, it has retained such a standing amongst the African-American community. Accordingly it has maintained a constant presence in Black churches and pop media, being covered by a number of artists and prominent individuals along the way. For instance, in 1990 Melba Moore put together a supergroup of some of R&B and gospel music’s biggest names to drop a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. And afterwards she went on to have to tune formally recognized by Congress.
Moreover in 2014 the President at the time, Barack Obama, performed a rendition of the tune in the White House itself. And also interesting to note is that later Beyoncé made the track part of her live setlist.
And in 2020, in recognition of the Black Lives Matter movement which swept throughout the United States during that year, the NFL made a decision to play “Life Every Voice and Sing” during every game conducted during the first week of the 2020-2021 NFL season.