Happy Black History Month

To start off Black History Month of Poems, I have a poem-song by James Weldon Johnson. Written in 1900 in collaboration with his brother Rosamond, "Lift Every Voice" became extremely popular and was later adopted as the "Negro National Anthem" by the NAACP. 

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Lift Every Voice and Sing

James Weldon Johnson 1917

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.



In the very first lines of the poem, Johnson sets the tone for the song with the lines, "Lift every voice and sing, / Til earth and heaven ring." It's nice. It rhymes, but what does it really mean?

Have you ever been vacuuming your house or apartment and started humming along with the drone of the vacuum cleaner at the same pitch, matching the drone of the vacuum? If you have, you know what kind of incredible vibrations that pitch match can set off. Your ears and skull buzzing, and you feel like your head might bust open.

Johnson evokes this image of resonance between earth and heaven as a signal to us that this song is about pitch-matching the hum of heaven. Like if we could just hit the right note, we would multiply the holiest parts of humanity and transform our fraught earthly lives into something celestial. These two simple lines let us know that this is a song about bringing the Kingdom of God down to earth. 

As you read the lyrics or listen to the song in the link below, notice the imagery of light and dark as well. While Johnson does use some traditional positive imagery for bright, white light, he also writes these lines: 

Shadowed beneath Thy hand, / May we forever stand, / True to our God, / True to our native land.

And here, that imagery of cool dark shade is just as holy as the white gleam or the rising sun. It's a savory twist at the end that flips the traditional, American imagery of white = good, dark = bad on its head. 
James Weldon Johnson.
Click the image to read more about his early life and influence on the African American community of the early 1900s. 
"Johnson penned the lyrics to 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,'
a tribute to black endurance, hope, and religious faith that was later adopted by the NAACP and dubbed 'the Negro National Anthem.'"
Listen to "Lift Every Voice" by the Wardlaw Brothers
Johnson's song inspired many people in the black community, most notably sculpture Augusta Savage who created "The Harp" for the 1923 World's Fair in New York with "Lift Every Voice" as her inspiration. 
Augusta Savage's sculpture "The Harp" at the 1939 New York World's Fair. It stood 16ft tall and featured, "12 singing African-American youth in graduated heights as its strings, with the harp's sounding board transformed into an arm and a hand. In the front, a kneeling young man offered music in his hands. Although considered one of her major works, The Harp was destroyed at the end of the fair."

"Inspired by the words of the poem 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' by James Weldon Johnson, [Savage] created The Harp."
Savage at work on "The Harp" before the 1923 World's Fair in New York
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Thanks for Being Part of Black History Month of Poems
Created by Becca Longenecker

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Rebecca Longenecker · 701 5th Ave · Seattle, Washington 98104 · USA

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