Perhaps it is as contrived as I write. I am sitting, tears rolling down to the point of “ugly cry”, writing this article, wearing a shirt that names the historically black town – Wewoka – in Oklahoma that my dad was from. The place that bears his truthful and painful tales about integrating the counters of Walgreens and the local movie theatre as a young teenager, not to mention how hard it was when most of the black teachers were fired and replaced with white teachers in the name of desegregation.
I am writing an article in February and am beyond compelled to pay homage to Black Liberation Month. I have spent weeks and weeks looking forward to writing this article and brainstorming about its contents. Now that I am close to deadline, I realize that there is little on my heart that I want to write about, given the dim reality of this historical moment. And then I am reminded of arguably the most important song in Black history and how it was written just thirty-seven years after slavery, when Jim Crow was President, at the turn of the century in an effort to commemorate President Lincoln’s Birthday in 1900: Lift Every Voice and Sing.
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 the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ‘til 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 bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast 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.
Lift Every Voice was initially written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and later put to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1953). It was first performed in 1900 by a group of black children at a segregated school to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The song was later adopted as the official song of the NAACP in 1919 and quickly became known as the Black National Anthem.
When Lift Every Voice is sung, everyone in the room quiets and stands. They usually lower their heads a bit and the mood becomes somewhat somber with a celebratory undertone. The song usually is sung at the beginning of a gathering that is bringing Black people and allies together for some type of commemoration. The moments surrounding this song, where everyone seems to get on the same metaphorical page regarding civil/human rights, are beyond sacred. There is no talking during the Black National Anthem, it is not the time or place to giggle, there is singing in whatever chord one can muster – especially the chorus – and those heed the command of the lyrics and Lift Every Voice.
Lift Every Voice has been performed countless times, is performed in several different genres of music and its lyrics have withstood the test of time and the incredible history of this country in the last 120 years. Civil Rights Leader Rev. Joseph Lowery gave the benediction at President Obama’s first inauguration by quoting the song’s third verse. The relevance continues as Beyoncé performed Lift Every Voice and Sing at Coachella in 2018.
As a Black woman, an activist, and an ally who aims to be a truth teller and story writer, I proclaim that in February of 2020, 120 years after it was first performed, this song maintains its relevance, glory, legacy and may be one of few pieces of black music that most of us will honor, others will simply ignore, but not many will attempt to ban its existence, nor extinguish its significance in Black history.
For me personally, the song grounds me . . . and then, I remember an obligation that I have as a Black person. The obligation I have is to Lift Every Voice and Sing. It is February, after all, and it is leap year so there is one extra day devoted to the celebration of Black history. There is nothing without hope. At least that was the frequently spoken motto of my father,until he died over 4 years ago, and I choose to believe them. I have hope and it’s time to go back to the basics, and paying homage to the song Lift Every Voice and Sing is as basic, hopeful, and glory-filled as it gets.
Sara Scott is a Denver native and recently moved home from Washington, D.C., where she was a founding partner of Zamani & Scott LLP, which provided full-service representation to individuals in the areas of adoption, assisted reproductive technology, and custody/divorce matters. As a trained mediator and collaborative divorce practitioner, she works to diffuse rather than inflame conflict, helping families reach a resolution in the least contentious way. Sara received her Juris Doctor from The George Washington University Law School, and her Bachelor of Arts degree from Stanford University, where she was awarded Stanford’s Community Building Award.