A History of the Newly Resurgent 'Black National Anthem'Breaking News
tags: African American history, music, national anthems
“A universal signifier of Black identity”
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written during a fraught moment in African-American history. At the dawn of the 20th century, post-Civil War reconstruction efforts were being dismantled; segregation had been codified through Plessy v Ferguson; and a Jim Crow reign of terror and exploitation was taking hold across the country.
In this hostile climate, many Black communities turned inward, forming their own schools, newspapers, musical groups, religious and social organizations. James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson, two brothers from Jacksonville, Fla., 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. “My thoughts began buzzing round a central idea of writing a poem about Lincoln but I couldn’t net them,” he wrote in his autobiography, Along This Way. Instead, he wrote a poem about Black struggle and perseverance and asked his brother to set his words to music. The result, which moved James himself to tears, captured a painful history of oppression (“Stony the road we trod/ Bitter the chastening rod”) while ending on a note of resilience: “May we forever stand/ True to our God/ True to our native land.”
The song was first performed the following year at Johnson’s school by a group of 500 children. The Johnsons would soon move out of Jacksonville following a deadly fire that ripped through the city. They brought the song to a Harlem arts scene that was quickly becoming a hotbed of creativity. Meanwhile, the song would also independently spread outward from its original city. “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 communally, it was also boosted by powerful Black leaders and organizations, including the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs and Booker T. Washington. In 1919, the NAACP named it its official song; James Weldon Johnson would be appointed the organization’s first African American executive secretary a year later.
Before long, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” would become, in Perry’s words, “a universal signifier of Black identity.” It was sung at church services, civic organization meetings, pageants and graduations; it anchored Emancipation Day and Negro History Week celebrations and daily school rituals.
“I sang the Negro National Anthem when I was hungry,” Congresswoman Maxine Waters wrote in Lift Every Voice and Sing: A Celebration of the Negro National Anthem, edited by Julian Bond and Sondra Kathryn Wilson. “I sang the Negro National Anthem when my tooth was hurting because of an exposed cavity—I sang the Negro National Anthem when I did not know there was a future for a little black girl with twelve sisters and brothers.”
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