They solemnly marched into the room to take their place near the piano, this group of second graders with shiny, nervous faces and bright eyes. They worked hard to overcome nervous fidgeting, taking their place on risers, and turning to look out over the audience of family members and teachers. The first cords of the song began and as one, the children started singing, “Lift every voice and sing, ‘til earth and heaven rings…” While those second graders were just happy with a well-done performance and a chance to get out of doing a little schoolwork, for one of them, the historical nature of their performance won’t be realized for years to come.
History of Lift Every Voice
Nearly 80 years before those second graders performed their version of Lift Every Voice, another group of school children in Jacksonville Florida performed the song for the first time in history, in celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, February 12, 1900.[I] Known as the Black national anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing began as a poem written by American poet James Weldon Johnson in 1900. The poem turned hymn when it was set to music by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson, highlighted the struggles and hopes of Black Americans at that time, becoming a symbol of perseverance and resistance. Nearly 50 years later, during The Civil Rights Movement, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) would adopt the song, as Black Americans fought for equality, often heard at marches, sit-ins, and other gatherings.[ii]
The poem turned hymn highlighted the struggles and hopes of Black Americans at that time, becoming a symbol of perseverance and resistance.
Resurgence of the Black National Anthem
The public death of a Black man played on repeat, a raised fist, a knee in protest introduced the song to a new generation, looking for a way to organize feelings brought about during the racial chaos in the summer of 2020. Reintroducing the song to the places where it had once been sung often and loudly brought with it a repeated history and a prescription of how to maintain hope amid change and uncertainty.
In 2020, a Black man, George Floyd, was killed during an interaction with police officers, an interaction that was broadcast live, then ruthlessly on repeat, and delivered to every conceivable device. Following Mr. Floyd death, as protests and marches sprang forth across the nation, the 100+years-old song was heard from the crowd in between chants.
This was the same year that giant sports leagues—like the NFL—and corporations had to finally confront the racism and injustices some of their patrons dealt with in the aftermath of Mr. Floyd’s death. Fans and patrons began to demand more from their entertainment and consumer outlets, and called upon those entities to act and stand up for them. As a response, many organizations began to incorporate Lift Every Voice into events and programs. Whether done genuinely or to placate remains unknown, but the exposure helped the song take a tighter hold in the culture.
From hymn to rallying cry
More than a century after James Weldon Johnson wrote Lift Every Voice, many things have changed. Segregated schools are no longer the norm, Black Americans gained the right to vote, the country even elected its first Black president and vice president. Yet while there has been significant improvement and growth for Black and other groups of color, there are still things that we are fighting for, like the ability to have a healthy and safe pregnancy and birth, to not be discriminated against based on our hair, the color of our skin or where we were born and raised.
We continue to learn our history and fight implicit bias and racism, but we can’t do it alone. Policy change takes a village, where the collective voice is lifted high and loud, and all of us are heard. Claiming and amplifying a song that highlights the spirit of community adds to the richness of our nation and community, not take away from it.
We continue to learn our history and fight implicit bias and racism, but we can’t do it alone.
As I reflect on being one of those shiny faces, bright-eyed second graders singing my heart out to Lift Every Voice, I realize I have taken for granted how unique my education was. I had the luxury and privilege to not only learn this song in school, just like I learned the Pledge of Allegiance, without concerns that it infringed upon someone’s belief or culture.
As we prepare for the observance of Juneteenth next week, from the schoolhouse to the statehouse, lift your voice, let it be heard loud and proud as you advocate for better research and better policies that impact Ohioans.
[i] Lift Every Voice and Sing, https://www.pbs.org/articles/lift-every-voice-and-sing/
[ii]Lift Every Voice and Sing, https://naacp.org/find-resources/history-explained/lift-every-voice-and-sing