“Lift Every Voice and Sing” which is often referred to as the Black national anthem in the United States of America is a hymn that was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 and music was made out of the poem by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1905.
History Of The Black Anthem
The black national anthem was written during a fraught period in the history of African Americans. At the beginning of the 20th century, post-Civil War reconstruction efforts were being dismantled; segregation had become the order of the day. In such hostile situations, many Black communities began to form their own schools, newspapers, musical groups, religious and social organizations.
James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, two brothers from Jacksonville, were steeped in these institutions: James was a poet, lawyer, and the principal of a segregated school, while John Rosamond taught music there.
In 1899, James set out to write a poem commemorating the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. He said, “My thoughts began buzzing around a central idea of writing a poem about Lincoln but I couldn’t net them,”
Instead, he wrote a poem centering on the Black struggle and perseverance and asked his brother to set his words to music. The outcome of their combined efforts which moved James himself to tears captured a painful history of oppression.
The black national anthem was first performed the following year at Johnson’s school by a group of 500 children. The Johnsons moved out of Jacksonville following a fire outbreak that ripped through the city. They brought the song to a Harlem arts scene. Meanwhile, the song would continue to spread outward from its original city to other places.
“The school children of Jacksonville kept singing it; they went off to other schools and sang it; they became teachers and taught it to other children,” James said in 1935.
As the song was passed along from place to place, it was also boosted by powerful Black leaders and organizations.
The Significance Of The Black Anthem
The major themes in “Lift Every Voice and Sing” are endurance, freedom, suffering, and joy. The poem celebrates the victory and liberty of the African-American people. It also gives an account of their painful path and discusses the way they have struggled for their emancipation and liberty.
In 1900, when the black anthem was composed, Black Americans were teetering on a fulcrum of history. The visibility and influence of African-American traditions were growing, but reconstruction efforts had failed to provide widespread opportunities for financial and educational advancement. Moreover, racism stood ready to close any door black achievers dared to open.
Among the Black leaders of the day, education, artistic excellence, and the power of Black communities of faith were both sources of strength and precious keys to progress. To many men and women like the Johnson brothers, who managed to find success, the rise of one Black American helped lift up all. The black anthem was at one time a history, a proclamation, and a vision for the future. It immediately resonated with Black communities and institutions.
The Black National Anthem Lyrics
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 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.
In 1919, “Lift every voice and sing,” was proclaimed as the “Negro National Anthem,” twelve years before “The Star-Spangled Banner” was adopted as the national anthem under President Herbert Hoover. It is a significant part of African American worship traditions and an enduring refrain for great Black artists.
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