Behind the Song: “Lift Every Voice and Sing” by James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson

James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson were brothers. Born two years apart in 1871 and 1873, respectively, the two also became artistic collaborators. James was a writer and civil rights activist. He was a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A poet and novelist, he rose to prominence during the Harlem Renaissance. John was a musician, singer and composer during the Harlem Renaissance. Together, the two created one of the most important American songs in history.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was written in 1905 by the two brothers. It was first publicly performed as a poem in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In 1919, the NAACP adopted the song officially as the Black National Anthem. For well over 100 years, the song has been sung and performed at important civil rights events around the world, from its inception in the early 20th century to today at protests and marches throughout the United States. (Beyoncé even added the song to her 2018 Coachella set list.)

On June 3rd, Seattle’s Rio Chanae sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the steps of City Hall to a crowd of thousands, commemorating a week of marches protesting police brutality. For Chanae, singing the song represents both the uplifting of Black American culture and Black American voices, but it also takes up space when the more traditional or mainstream “Star Spangled Banner” might be sung.

“I don’t know how much you know about the current National Anthem,” Chanae says, “but it speaks despairingly about slaves and black people hired by the British side during the Revolutionary War.”

Reading those words may make some bristle. “What?” some may exclaim. “The ‘Star Spangled Banner’ is not racist!” But, these days especially, as I know I have learned over and over, it’s important to listen when Black folks speak about these matters. For many, the “Star Spangled Banner” is the patriotic song we hear before basketball, baseball and football games. But in that version, we only hear the first verse and chorus, which are not controversial:

O! say, can you see, by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming:
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming,
And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

O! say, does that Star-spangled Banner still* wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

The song’s third verse, however, goes like this:

And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion
A home and a country should leave us no more?
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave.
From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave!

And the Star-spangled Banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Slaves, hired by the British hoping for their freedom, aren’t welcome in the home of the brave, according to that third verse. They either run or are dead. Sad shit. But while a great deal of ink has been shed in prosaic battles over the country’s national anthem to date, let us not take up space arguing here. Instead, if at all possible, let’s celebrate a great and necessary song: “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

For Chanae, who has sung the song in prominent venues all over Seattle, including the Museum of Pop Culture and the packed 600-plus-person venue, Neumos, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” represents hope. And hope is maybe the best of things.

“A lot of people I know don’t know the song at all,” says Chanae, “which is unfortunate. But I’m really glad that I can be a part of the culture that brings it to them. The song is so important. Performing it is always positive and always uplifting.”

Lyrics:

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
let our rejoicing rise,
high as the list’ning skies, let it resound loud as the rolling sea
sing a song full of faith that the dark past has tought 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 till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
bitter the chast’ning rod,
felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
yet with a steady beat,
have not our weary feet,
come to the place on witch 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.

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