I grew up during the turbulent 1960s. I was in high school when I first learned of a Negro National Anthem. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” came to represent for me the essence of the Black Power Movement. In my mind, that movement embodied black people becoming empowered to see ourselves as one contiguous group.
We were changing generations, seeing ourselves as “Brothers” and “Sisters.” No longer were we defined by “high-yella” or “blue-black.” We weren’t “good hair” or “nappy-headed.” Finally the “house niggers” and the “field niggers” were black people. And when I sang the words to that song, I raised my fist to the sky.
The song to me was not in defiance to the Star-Spangled Banner but more in response to it. It’s hard to sing about “the land of the free” when the words “Let us march on till victory is won” seems more apropos.
I got into a discussion with a friend over whether or not one’s fist should be raised during the song. She said not. She grew up hearing the song in church and felt it was more of a kumbaya moment than a protest song. So I Googled the history of the song.
It was written by James Weldon Johnson, then set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson.
It was first performed in Jacksonville, Fla., on Feb. 12, 1900 by 500 school children at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The honored guest that day was Booker T. Washington. To further understand the context of the song, those children were from the segregated Stanton School of which James Weldon Johnson was the principal. Even a blind man can see the hypocrisy of celebrating Lincoln’s birthday (you know, freeing the slaves) when Jim Crow was in force — slavery by a different name.
Back in 1919, the NAACP officially adopted the song as the Negro National Anthem. The song has made news over the years.
A few years back, Professor Timothy Askew out of Clarke University made news when, in his dissertation, he claimed that “the song was intentionally written with no specific reference to any race or ethnicity.”
However when you consider the time in which the song was written, America was a black or white country. There was little gray matter between.
This country was not the multiracial nation that exists today.
It is also very interesting that a professor who wasn’t around in 1919 and the Johnson brothers (age 48 and 46 at the time) who were alive to dispute the idea of the song being the Negro National Anthem, didn’t.
The 100th anniversary of that song being the Black National Anthem is approaching.
I think it would be a wonderful idea for the NAACP at both the national and local levels to begin to plan a celebration of that momentous occasion. The song can be sung by various racial/ethnic/special interest groups. For once, instead of those groups hijacking our Civil Rights Movement with weak attempts to compare their plight to what ours was/is, they can for once embrace and acknowledge in celebration the struggle that black people went through.
The one part I think Professor Askew got very wrong, and many others do as well, is to always want Black America to be understanding and accommodating when it should be the other way around. He felt that we aren’t supposed to have a Black National Anthem, even though we didn’t originate the environment that led to its creation.
We aren’t supposed to have a Miss Black America pageant when it was created in response to the other one that didn’t want blacks in it.
It is time to flip the script and have White America acknowledge her contributions to the plight of Black America as well as celebrate how much we as a country have overcome.