History: The Black national anthem ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is first performed / by Special to the Peopl’es World

Portrait of composers and producers Bob Cole, James Weldon Johnson, and J. Rosamond Johnson, Jan. 1, 1900, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Photographs and Prints Division, New York Public Library (public domain)

Originally published in Literary History, February 12 – February 18, 2023

On Feb. 12, 1900, the students of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Fla., where James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938)—the poet and novelist who would go on to become the executive secretary of the NAACP—was the principal, gave the first ever performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song that would become known as the Black national anthem, as part of a celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.

Charles Henry Alston (1907-1977), artist, ‘James Weldon Johnson—Author, Diplomat, Public Servant,’ National Archives at College Park.

“My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercise,” Johnson wrote in 1935.

“I wrote the words and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored schoolchildren.

“Shortly afterwards my brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the school children of Jacksonville kept singing it, they went off to other schools and sang it, and they became teachers and taught it to other children. Within twenty years it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.

“The lines of this song repay me in an elation, almost of exquisite anguish, whenever I hear them sung by Negro children.”

As Johnson intimates, the song quickly spread after its original performance. It was endorsed by Booker T. Washington in 1905 and became the official song of the NAACP in 1919. Since then, it has remained a beloved cultural touchstone, sung in schools, stadiums, and churches across the country, and performed by everyone from Kim Weston to Gladys Knight to Beyoncé.

“What are we to do with the ugliness that comes with loving a country with soil rich from the bloodshed of those who shoulder the trauma of its creation—from the pillaging of the land to the enslaved bodies that toiled atop it?” wrote Gerrick Kennedy in Didnt We Almost Have It All. “The answer for Black people was to make their own anthem, and that’s why for the last century ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ has been our rallying cry for liberation and a lasting symbol of Black pride.”

Lift every voice and sing
Till 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 till 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,
Till 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 hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast 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 unsigned article appeared recently in Literary History.

People’s World is a voice for progressive change and socialism in the United States. It provides news and analysis of, by, and for the labor and democratic movements to our readers across the country and around the world. People’s World traces its lineage to the Daily Worker newspaper, founded by communists, socialists, union members, and other activists in Chicago in 1924.

Teach Black history – don’t ban it! / by Tracey L. Rogers

Otherwords.org. | Shutterstock

Originally published in Otherwords on February 1, 2022

When Republican President Gerald Ford officially recognized Black History Month in 1976, he called on Americans to “seize the opportunity to honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans.”

He also acknowledged that Black Americans had shown “courage and perseverance” when our country had failed to live up to its own ideals.

Today, even Ford’s simple words would be inadmissible in many American classrooms.

As of last year, at least 35 state legislatures had introduced bills to limit the discussion of racial history in their classrooms. At least 16 had passed them.

Over 300 books by predominantly Black authors are banned throughout the country. And educators are being fined, harassed, forced to resign, or fired for teaching about race.

Little acts like hanging a “Black Lives Matter Sign” in class can be grounds for termination. In Florida, keeping classroom books that haven’t been cleared by state censors can be grounds for felony prosecution.

As a result, teachers are finding it more and more difficult to teach about Black history without fear of repercussions.

As a Black woman, I am not at all surprised by these attempts to whitewash our history. If I were a politician obsessed with suppressing civil rights, voting rights, and racial justice, I too would probably want to make sure only my version of the story gets told.

These efforts aren’t new, either.

Despite progress made since the Civil Rights Movement to update the textbooks used in U.S. schools, “most mainstream social studies textbooks remain tethered to sanitized versions of history that mislead young minds,” writes fifth-grade teacher and Rethinking Schools founder Bob Peterson.

In a discussion with Color of Change president Rashad Robinson, journalist and Howard University Professor Nikole Hannah-Jones argued that this erasure is no accident.

Hannah-Jones, the 1619 Project founder, explained: “The same instinct that led powerful people to prohibit Black people from being able to read is the same instinct that’s leading powerful people to try to stop our children from learning histories that would lead them to question the unequal society that we have as well.”

It’s why politicians like Governor Ron DeSantis (R-FL) are going to such lengths to ban Black studies in schools. The Florida Education Department and College Board recently rejected an AP African American History high school curriculum, claiming it “lacked educational value.”

DeSantis notoriously signed the so-called “Individual Freedom Act,” also known as the “Stop WOKE Act,” which states that “teachers are not allowed to make students feel ‘guilty about past discrimination by members of their race.’”

Much of Black history in this country isn’t easy to learn, teach, or digest — there is nothing comfortable about it. But the point isn’t to make students feel “guilty.” It’s to help them learn.

To be “woke,” or to “stay woke” — a term originated by African American communities in the 1940s — is to become “woken up or sensitized to issues of justice,” as linguist Tony Thorne told The Independent.

The state of Florida apparently agrees, defining “woke” in court as simply “the belief there are systemic injustices in American society.” But the state is manipulating the term as if it were wrong or “progressive” to believe that systemic injustices exist.

Thankfully, many people aren’t fooled. Students all over the country, including in my home state of Pennsylvania, are protesting book bans on stories of color.

Overturning those bans would benefit kids of every color. “Having a diverse curriculum will benefit students in the long haul,” argues writer Nathalie Wilson, because it “helps them to better understand the complexities in the world.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Black history is complex. It is also American history. This Black History Month, don’t ban it — teach it.

Permission to reprint granted by Otherwords.org.

Tracey L. Rogers is an entrepreneur and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion consultant in Philadelphia.

Reposted in the People’s World, on February 10, 2023, https://www.peoplesworld.org/