It was many years ago that I was at a church service and sang, for the first time, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, also called the Black National Anthem. I was curious about the second name; I, like most Americans, considered “The Star Spangle Banner” to be our National Anthem. The SSB was written by Francis Scott Keys in response to the bombing of Ft. McHenry during the War of 1812 and has no connection to the American Revolution. It has 4 verses, although only the first is sung; we don’t have the patience for more. It is one of the first examples of American Christian Nationalism, mixing God and Country, and became our official National Anthem in 1931 – yes, in the wake of the Great Depression.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” (here is a link – Lift Every Voice and Sing | NAACP) was written in 1900 by James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson as a hymn of faith that called for full equality for people of African descent. It recognized, like Juneteenth, that not everyone was freed on the 4th of July; it is a plea for freedom that became the official song of the NAACP in 1919. It was played last week before a Lions-Kansas City football game and has caused some controversy. For many people, the SSB is being scrutinized and questioned, which I find gratifying, considering all the complaining I hear that people don’t know the words (or even care). It is a complicated and fascinating poem – here is a link. NMAH | The Lyrics (si.edu)
I don’t understand why people get all verklempt about this kind of thing. Sure, we are forced to sing verse 1 of the SSB at every sporting event, which has always seemed silly to me. At the Olympics, they play the national anthem of the winner, which, I guess, makes sense. All of this jingoistic posturing gets a little old after a while, and this is one more way to divide us. There are no laws that say we must play the SSB at a football game; we just do. I, for one, wouldn’t miss it. It is one more way we have hyper-militarized our country. And please, don’t get your feathers ruffled over what I am writing – I love my country and honor those who serve in the military. I just am tired of all the self-righteous indignation. I get emotional every time I say the Pledge of Allegiance, even with the 1950s added “under God” part that only happened because we were so afraid of Communism. Grown-ups shouldn’t act like this.
Personally, I would like to keep hymns in church and keep nationalism in secular events. I would like to see indignant white folks start thinking about what it meant to be a former slave in a land that didn’t want you to be free; can you imagine singing a song about freedom written by people who kept you enslaved? I would write a new song too. I think this country would be a lot better off is we attempted to understand why people do what they do, rather than getting insulted and defensive every time something happens that we don’t understand. All this ado about nothing just shows how immature we are as a people. Time to grow up.
Prayer – Teach us to learn, God of creation, so that we can understand and, maybe, get along better. Amen.
Today’s art is a statue by Augusta Savage (1939) called “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. It was commissioned for the New York World’s Fair and destroyed after, along with all the other temporary artworks at the Fair. Copies of it can be found all over the country, including Jacksonville, FL where the brothers were born.