On Dec. 12, 1900, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson composed “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the African American National Anthem.
In “May We Forever Stand” (2018), Imani Perry’s social history of the song, she illuminates its impact and meaning in African American history, life and culture. Perry sums up its significance, saying, “Perhaps, most important, it was and is the song of a people, my people.”
Her apt phrase, “the song of a people, my people” is pregnant with meaning. Perry’s words recognize that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” expresses the ethos of the African American people. As the preeminent lyrical comment on the toils, travails, aspirations and triumphs of black folk, the song’s lyrics and social history highlight racial oppression throughout the African diaspora. The lyrics also specifically speak to both the external contradiction between the U.S. and Afro-America and to the internal paradoxes within the black “nation within a nation.”
Coon songs were at their height of popularity when the Johnsons premiered “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Interestingly, the same year it appeared, “Every Race Has a Flag Except the Coon” became a smash hit. In response to that racist ditty, Marcus Garvey created the red, black and green flag. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was an alternative and antidote to the demeaning coon songs that dominated popular music from the 1880s-1920s.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” recalled Black history, asserted an autonomous identity and celebrated a freedom culture. Verses in the fourth and fifth stanzas speak directly to the contradiction of white American freedom and African American oppression. Johnson wrote, “Stony the road we trod, Bitter the Chast’ing rod/Felt in the day that hope/Unborn had died” and “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,/We have come threading a path Through the blood of the slaughtered.” These lines highlight the violence and inhumanity at the heart of enslavement and subsequent racial oppression. However, more importantly, they express the resilience and resistance of the African American people.
After its initial performance in 1900, black communities, largely schools and churches, promoted the song. By the late teens, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” had become a centerpiece of graduation ceremonies, Emancipation Day, Juneteenth, and May Day commemorations, and celebrations such as “Negro History Week.” Black associations, clubs and organizations often opened or closed their meetings by singing it. In 1920, the NAACP made “Lift Every Voice and Sing” its official song.
Due to its popularity among African Americans, by 1930, the song attracted severe criticism from white Americans. Sociologist Walter L. Daykin saw “the demand that the ‘N’ in Negro be capitalized,” “the Negro National Anthem,” efforts to adopt African American history texts in schools, etc., as part of a dangerous trend that inspired “militant attitudes” and “ethno-centrism.” Moreover, Daykin contended, “much of Negro history was fictitious” and “an expression of growing nationalism.”
Not surprisingly, a few in the Black community echoed Daykin’s hostility. Ernest Lyons, an Afro-Honduran African Methodist Episcopal minister and college professor committed to assimilation, observed, “If we need a national anthem, then we will also need a Negro national flag which will carry us on the verge of Garveyism. We need neither. We are American citizens.”
In contrast to Lyons’ view, in 1920, Garvey proposed an alternative national anthem. Before his keynote address to 25,000 attendees at the inaugural International Convention of the Negro Peoples of the World, the band played Garvey’s choice for the Black national anthem, “Ethiopia, Land of Our Fathers.”
The Lyons and Garvey cases suggest that the lyrics and social history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” reflected and generated internal contradictions in Afro-America. Johnson wrote the song to commemorate the birthday of Abraham Lincoln and dedicated it to Booker T. Washington. However, as Perry points out, the song’s lyrics reflect the militancy of Frederick Douglass rather than the cautious Lincoln or accommodationist Washington.
“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was always contentious. In 1901, journalist, anti-lynching activist and black clubwoman Victoria Earle Matthews designated the song “an anthem.” In contrast, the NAACP described it as “a hymn” in 1920. The last third of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a praise song glorifying God, but the first two-thirds are an anthem commemorating the history of black toil, travail, aspiration and triumph.
Johnson rejected the song’s nationalist implications. An integrationist and American patriot, he considered “Lift Every Voice and Sing” more beautiful and “American” than “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which he derided as an “old foreign drinking song.” Additionally, Johnson condemned “The Star-Spangled Banner” as “boastful and bloodthirsty.”
On this latter point, Johnson is correct. Every year since fall 2011, I’ve engaged students in my “Black America, 1619-Present” class in a comparison and contrast of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” The students have unfailingly reached the same conclusion as Johnson: that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a more humane and beautiful song.
Its beauty and meaning lies in its melodious and sometimes sorrowful and other times uplifting recollection of the struggles and victories of black folk. Yet, objectively, given its central theme, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” does express the identity and nationalistic sentiments of my people, the “nation within a nation” known as the African American people.