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James Weldon Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"

Updated on November 22, 2017
Maya Shedd Temple profile image

After I fell in love with Walter de la Mare's "Silver" in Mrs. Edna Pickett's sophomore English class, circa 1962, poetry became my passion.

James Weldon Johnson

Source

Negro National Anthem

Mon, 1900-02-12: On this date in 1900, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” also known as the Negro National Anthem and the Negro National Hymn, was sung publicly for the first time. --African American Registry, http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/debut-negro-national-anthem

Introduction and Text of Hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"

John Rosamond Johnson, who was the poet's brother, composed the music for the poem, which gained such prominence that it became designated as "The African American National Hymn"; it was entered into the United States Congressional Record.

The poem shares a common theme with the "Star Spangled Banner"; both works celebrate and offer gratitude to the Divine for the rewards of freedom. The poems is especially significant to the Africa American experience, including liberation from slavery and the subsequent struggle against Black Codes, Jim Crow laws that continued to foster segregation and denigration of the former slaves and their descendants.

Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning 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 chast’ning 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.

Performance with lyric

Commentary

First Movement: Sing Joyfully and Loudly

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning 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.

The speaker begins by enjoining his listeners to sing joyfully and loudly as to raise their voices to the Heavens. Such thankful voices should spread throughout the sea and sky. The singing must be filled with the "faith that the dark past has taught us, and with the hope that the present has brought us."

The speaker/singer encourages his hearers/listeners to continue their struggle until they are victorious. He insists that victory is not the final reward, but victory for freedom will demand constant vigilance, eternally watching and fighting to maintain that precious commodity.

The human race in all its various hues and shades has learned nothing, if not that there is never a guarantee of freedom without effort. There are always groups afoot, conspiring to take the freedom and property of others. Lest defeat be snatched from the jaws of victory, each human being must remain watchful to protect hard-won freedom.

Second Movement: Remaining Undeterred by Tears and Death

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning 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.

The speaker reminds his listener of the difficulties they have faced. The road has been "stony"—not impossible to travel but not easy nonetheless. Their struggles made having hope a weary task, but through unwavering courage and much hard work, they know they have gained their goal; thus they must celebrate and be thankful.

They have continued their march, undeterred by tears and even death. They have traveled on despite the blood shed, the gloom, and the often dashed hopes and dreams. They now can see that they stand, "Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast." They can finally realize that their struggles have resulted in hope and success.

Third Movement: Prayer of Gratitude

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.

In the third and final movement, the speaker offers a prayer of gratitude to the Divine Beloved. The speaker/singer recognizes that the Divine Beloved has always guided them as they have been met with struggles for freedom. They have come through all the "weary years with silent tears."

The speaker/singer acknowledges that with the love and guidance of the Divine Reality, they have been led into the light, and he fervently prays that they will continue down the golden path of righteousness that leads and maintains liberty.

The speaker asks of his Divine Creator that he have the ability to keep his feet from straying away from His mercy and guidance. He also petitions the Divine Guide to assist them and not allow them to descend into drunkeness with worldly affairs that would divert their attention away from the Only Reality.

"Shadowed beneath [God's] hand": With this concluding, holy image, the speaker places his life, his trust, and his faith in the only hand that matters.

Lovely rendition with beautiful, perfect harmony

Biographical Sketch of James Weldon Johnson

James Weldon Johnson was born in Jacksonville, Florida, on June 17, 1871. The son of James Johnson, a free Virginian, and a Bahamian mother, Helen Louise Dillet, who served as the first black, female school teacher in Florida. His parents raised him to be a strong, independent, free-thinking individual, instilling in him the notion that he could accomplish anything he set his mind to.

Johnson attended Atlanta University, and after graduation, he became principal of the Stanton School, where his mother had been a teacher. While serving as principle at the Stanton school, Johnson founded the newspaper, The Daily American. He later became the first black American to pass the Florida bar exam.

In 1900, with his brother,J. Rosamond Johnson, James composed the influentional hymn, "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing," which became known as the Negro National Anthem. Johnson and his brother continued to compose songs for Broadway after moving to New York. Johnson later attended Columbia University, where he studied literature.

In addition to serving as educator, lawyer, and composer of songs, Johnson, in 1906, became a diplomat to Nicaragua and Venezuela, appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt. After returning to the United States from the Dipolomatic Corps, Johnson became a founding member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and in 1920, he began serving as the president of that organization.

James Weldon Johnson also figures strongly in the arts movement known as the Harlem Rensaissance. In 1912, while serving as the Nicaraguan diplomat, he penned his classic, The Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man. Then after resigning from that diplomatic position, Johnson retured to the States and began writing full time.

In 1917, Johnon published his first book of poems, Fifty Years and Other Poems. This collection was highly praised by critics, and helped establish him as an important contributor to the Harem Renaissance Movement. He continued to write and publish, and he also edited several volumes of poetry, including The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), The Book of American Negro Spirituals (1925), and The Second Book of Negro Spirituals(1926).

Johnson's second collection of poems, God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, appeared in 1927, again to critical acclaim. Education reformer and best-selling American author of the early 20th century, Dorothy Canfield Fisher expressed high praise for Johnson's work, stating in a letter to Johnson that his works were "heart-shakingly beautiful and original, with the peculiar piercing tenderness and intimacy which seems to me special gifts of the Negro. It is a profound satisfaction to find those special qualities so exquisitely expressed."

Johnson contined to write after retiring from the NAACP, and he then later served as professor at New York University. About Johnson's reputation upon joining the faculty, Deborah Shapiro has stated:

Dr. James Weldon Johnson was already a world-renowned poet, novelist, and educator when he arrived at the School of Education in 1934. His faculty appointment was in the Department of Educational Sociology, yet Johnson’s influence did not end there. As the first black professor at NYU, Johnson broke a crucial color barrier, inspiring further efforts toward racial equality both within and outside the boundaries of Washington Square.

At age 67, Johnson was killed in an automobile accident in Wiscasset, Maine. His funeral was held in Harlem, New York, and was attended by over 2000 people. Johnson's creative power rendered him a true "renaissance man," who lived a full life, penning some of the finest poetry and songs ever to appear on the American Literary Scene.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

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  • Natalie Frank profile image

    Natalie Frank 14 months ago from Chicago, IL

    Your analyses always leave me wanting more! Thanks for another great article.

  • Maya Shedd Temple profile image
    Author

    Linda Sue Grimes 2 years ago from U.S.A.

    Thank you, Stella. It's such a lovely song with inspiring wise words. Johnson is one of my favorite poets. He was a great talent! Have a blessed day!

  • ladyguitarpicker profile image

    stella vadakin 2 years ago from 3460NW 50 St Bell, Fl32619

    I enjoyed reading this article about Johnson and love how you explain it. I never knew there was a Negro National Anthem. Thanks, Stella

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