Posted by: jevcat | January 16, 2011

Lifted Voices

This is the weekend the nation honors the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., so, of course, at church this morning we sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”  I love it, it always makes me cry, and it got me thinking back to my own history with that hymn.

Growing up in the 60s, I heard a lot about “The Black National Anthem” that some folks thought (and some demanded) should be sung whenever the Star Spangled Banner was – or in place of it.  A white girl from a fairly liberal family, I still didn’t quite see why we needed a Black National Anthem – I mean, black pride was a good thing, but hadn’t the fight been to end segregation?  So where did separate national anthems fit into that picture?  The key thing here is, I had never heard it or read the words.  When I finally did read and hear “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (originally “The Negro National Hymn”) – a lesson in judging without the facts – I was stunned:  this was not just a black poem/song; it was an American one, and something to which I could not imagine how anyone could object.  It spoke to me – sang to me from the page, even without music.

Senior year in high school, we had an English teacher who was roundly and heartily detested, though not always for the same reasons.  Some kids hated her because her insistence on correct grammar went beyond the rigorous to the downright nit-picky:  I had written across the front of a notebook for her class a number of quotes, including the famously split infinitive that introduced each of the original Star Trek episodes (then still fairly new):  “ … to boldly go where no man has gone before;” she corrected it with her red marking pen, even adding a notation.  Everyone hated her strictness:  one of the few battles we actually won with her was that we refused, when the bell ending class rang, to line up at the door two-by-two, like the animals entering the ark, and move out in lock step – something we had never had to do and that particularly offended our dignity as seniors.  For some, the fact that she was black – the first African-American teacher most of us, white or black, had ever had – was enough reason to hate her.

Typically, when she announced we would be spending some time studying black American writers, the black kids were happy, albeit some of them only for the scoring of political points, and many of the white kids grumbled (I was not one of them – at least as regards the subject matter, rather than the teacher.)

In prose, we read Margret Walker’s Jubilee, based on her own family history, and thereby learned things Gone With the Wind – and our history textbooks – hadn’t told us about life in the old South.  There was a certain cachet in knowing that our teacher had been taught by Margaret Walker.

Our teacher even told us things that made me, at least, look at her differently, about how she had to work her way through college, playing the role of dumb deference as clerk in a southern ladies’ store catering to whites, buying her education by pretending to be stupid and subservient.  I still found her insufferable at times, but understood more her almost monomaniacal insistence that we learn to function at elite levels.

And we studied poets, opening a door for me into a whole new wonderful world, for which I could never adequately thank her, even if I knew how to get in touch with her now:  authors with names such as (she would strike it out if I wrote “like”) Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, James Weldon Johnson, and words, beautiful words, words that tumbled over one another with emotion, with beauty, tenderness, anger, wisdom, love, words that will always be my companions now.

Some of the poems only gather more meaning with the years:  “my soul has grown deep like the rivers” and “I’se still climbing, and life for me ain’t been no crystal stair” (both Langston Hughes:  “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and “Mother to Son”).

James Weldon Johnson’s “Creation” from his cycle of verse sermons, God’s Trombones, was unforgettable from the start, filled with vivid, visceral, and personal images, from God saying, “I’m lonely – I’ll make me a world!” right down to God kneeling to form Adam “like a mammy bending over her baby.”   I urge you to experience it if you never have.

But the most famous and widely known piece of African-American writing may be Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” set to music by his brother, composer J. Rosamund Johnson.  Dr. King’s work, our work, is still not finished, but I leave you with the poem/hymn’s last verse, the one I always wind up not being able to sing because my voice won’t work through the tears:


God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,

thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;

thou who hast by thy might

led us into the light;

keep us for ever in the path, we pray.

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;

shadowed beneath thy hand

may we forever stand,

true to our God, true to our native land.



  1. I love “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” too. I led my clients in singing it today, follwing a moment of silence in the Rev. Dr. King’s memory. I agree with you that it’s a song for everyone who lives in the hope of peace and freedom; a truly American song. May its promise be fulfilled; my keyboard to G-d’s ears!

  2. A beautiful, inspiring song. And I like the introspection you show in evaluating your mixed feelings toward your teacher. Just because someone is a member of a disadvantaged minority group doesn’t mean she can’t be insufferable sometimes.

    • She definitely was insufferable, but if I could find her, I’d still thank her. I think part of the problem was she was trying to prepare us for the world she had grown up in but the world was changing.

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