Around 1900, the legendary African-American author and composer James Weldon Johnson penned Lift Every Voice and Sing. He didn’t mean for it to become “The Negro National Anthem” but the song was so powerful and inspirational that it was informally adopted as such. People of all races and religions – from America to Angola to Japan – have been invigorated by it ever since.
Rabbi Stephen Wise, a NAACP member during the 1920s, once wrote that it is “the noblest anthem I have ever heard. It is a great upwelling of prayer from the soul of a race long wronged but with faith unbroken.”
One hundred and thirteen years later, I pray that African-Americans would once again be galvanized by the words of this song. In addition to being historic and spiritual, the words of Lift Every Voice and Sing could serve as a guidepost for us as we strive to “Return to Royalty” and be all God created us to be as individuals and as a people.
Let’s look at a few of the lyrics:
“Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us…”
Johnson wrote that the intense oppression we suffered during slavery made our faith in God strong. With nothing else to latch onto, with nothing else to put our hope in, we clung to God. This is biblical, as the children of Israel did the same thing whenever they were oppressed.
Even as individuals, we have a tendency to call on God when times are tough, yet to ignore Him when He prospers us. As a people, we must fight the urge and the temptation to forget God now that we have more money, more political clout, more opportunities and more education. We have to remember that “every good and perfect gift comes from above” (James 1:17) and that God has not given us these gifts for us to leave Him out.
Keeping our faith in God cannot be mere lip service either, like thanking Him for an award we’ve won for a song with vulgar and ungodly lyrics, or like going to church every Sunday but living like a hellion the rest of the week. We must show our faith in God through our actions and our words – in the way we treat our spouses, in the way we raise our children, in the way we talk to and deal with others. The Lord Jesus Christ showed his love for us through His actions – dying on the cross – so we should show our love for Him through our actions as well.
Johnson also talked of singing about this faith. A song is something that’s recited repeatedly. So in other words, we should consistently remind ourselves of the journey God has brought our people through. Again, this was the case with the Israelites, who constantly taught generation after generation about how God brought them out of Egypt and showed Himself strong to them.
This appears to be something we have lost as a people as much of the younger generation seems cut off from, and oblivious to, our history. When the younger generation not only glosses over the idea that hearing the N-word upsets their elders (many of whom may have seen brutal treatment associated with that word), but actually fights adamantly to defend their usage of it, the importance of our history clearly is not being transferred from old to young.
When a platinum-selling artist who has the ears of millions of youth has no shame in saying, “Shout out to the slave masters. Without them we’d still be in Africa. We wouldn’t be here to get all this ice and tattoos” – and an even bigger superstar rapper can compare having rough sex to “beat(ing) (it) up like Emmett Till” – we obviously have not adequately passed on a knowledge of, and respect for, our past or our people.
“Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us…”
At the turn of the 20th century, when there were far fewer reasons for Black folks to be optimistic, Johnson wrote about being full of hope. Today, even though we’ve got a Black president, even though we’ve got superstar entertainers and athletes, even though we have prolific individuals in practically every field of endeavor, too many Black children are afraid they’ll die at the hands of another Black person and won’t grow to see adulthood. And more and more young Black males are killing themselves. Throughout slavery and Jim Crow segregation, Blacks had astonishingly low rates of suicide, especially considering the racism and oppression they experienced on a daily basis. But since the 1980s, the suicide rate for Black men has been rising rapidly. Too many of our youth can’t sing a song full of hope.
Hope is a sign of our connection to God, for knowing God and how awesome, powerful and miracle-working He is naturally gives us hope. That significant numbers of Black kids don’t think they’ll live past 18 years of age or feel compelled to take their own lives shows that we haven’t adequately shown them how to be connected to God through Jesus Christ.
How could a people less than 40 years out of slavery, who had all the gains of Reconstruction taken away, sing of hope, and yet today, with all the progress we’ve made, many of our children are hopeless? What’s the difference?
Jesus Christ and the church was the hub of the Black community back then. Not so anymore. Johnson sums it up in his final chorus:
“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…”
As a people, let’s restore the place the Lord Jesus Christ once had in our personal lives, in our families, and in our communities. He showed Himself strong to us. In much bleaker times than this, He enabled us to produce newspapers, mutual aid societies, insurance companies and more. He gave us the strength to “keep hope alive” and to endure slavery and to believe that “we shall overcome” against the most tremendous of odds.
Though the Black family had been decimated during slavery, when Christ was our center, roughly 90% of Black children were born into a home where the father was present in 1920. In 1960, that number was 80%. Today, it’s less than 30%. It seems that as our faith in Christ has gotten weaker, we as a people have gotten weaker as well. Let’s learn from the song and stay true to it’s closing lines:
“Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land”
This is not to belittle the systemic, institutional and racist obstacles that still work against us; it’s just to say let’s take responsibility for what we can control, first and foremost by having true and sincere faith in the God Johnson wrote about all those years ago.