February 13, 2023
Before Super Bowl 2023, as is customary, our national anthem ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ was sung. Also sung was ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ a hymn written by James Weldon Johnson in 1900 that has been dubbed by some as the “Black National Anthem.”
There has long been criticism and defense of using this label to describe the song and Sheryl Lee Ralph’s rendition before the Super Bowl predictably renewed that debate, as media outlets and commentators on both sides of the ideological aisle used it extensively in their coverage.
This criticism should not extend to the song itself however, only to the potential for its misuse by contemporary critics of America’s foundations that seek to utilize such cultural treasures as tools to divide people along racial in-group/out-group lines rather than to unite everyone under shared objectively-derived principles. This is part of the on-going culture wars that include debates over saying the Pledge of Allegiance or kneeling before the American flag in official capacities to protest perceived injustice (I’ve touched on these here and here respectively). We ought to seek to avoid this division not by trying to stop this fine song from being sung (we know this will only make Americans want to sing it more anyway) but by embracing the song and explaining it in an American context.
Like ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ typically only the first verse/stanza of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is sung when performed in front of mass audiences. Unlike ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ however, without considering the latter parts of the work, the first verse/stanza of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ can be subjectively interpreted to mean what one wants it to mean.
What do I mean by this? First, let’s look at the lyrics to ‘Lift Every Voice and sing’:
Lift every voice and sing,
’Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed.
We have come, over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
’Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever 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.
The first stanza ends with, “Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on ’til victory is won.” Aside from a vague reference to liberty and faith, there is little in the first stanza to help define “victory” or how to achieve it. It is not until the last stanza that we see that “victory” is found in God’s light and the path towards that victory is made possible if we avoid filling our hearts with the “wine of the world.” Aside from the obvious Christian context (it is a Christian hymn after all) it is this last stanza that makes this song compatible with the American founding principles of the Declaration, of natural law, and of government based on such moral objectivity, not subjectivity. If in the first verse people arbitrarily substitute in their own “wine,” this contradicts the intent of the song and would not lead to “victory,” but rather defeat.
I am not suggesting that the entire song must be sung in order to make it worthwhile. This would unfortunately be impractical since it would take longer than the average person’s attention span before an event in order to do the song justice. I only mean to say that considering the full song reveals its true meaning and will help identify those that may wish to use it as a means to lead others away from respecting ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, the American flag, and the Republic for which it stands.
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is fully compatible with the American Way and American values. It has a special meaning related to the struggles endured by Black Americans in our history that can be recognized by all while also applying to humanity in general. By reflecting moral truths it also helps reveal precisely why that which Black Americans endured was such an injustice, making any listen a teachable moment. We must not let worldly desires guide us, we must not violate the consent and rights of others to achieve our selfish ends. We must follow the righteous path in all things. In this way the song is universalizable as would be required of a “national anthem” of sorts. But we already have a national anthem that applies to all. The criticism of calling the song the “Black National Anthem” is valid if taken to mean ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ is not sufficient to apply to Black Americans or that ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ ought to apply only to Black Americans. Are there some people that think this way? Almost certainly. Does everyone that calls the song the ‘Black National Anthem’ think this way? Almost certainly not. Countering the former group is a duty. Everyone else can enjoy both ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ AND the national anthem ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ in the meantime.
Should the song be sung before events like the Super Bowl? I suppose that isn’t up to me to decide, but rather the spirit of the age. ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ however ought to endue as our official national anthem as the flag itself endured in the story and as we have endured, united as a nation based on just principles in a chaotic world.