For all of the discussion surrounding the legitimacy, importance and value of the song we know as Lift Every Voice and Sing, there is still so much more we do not know. We had the opportunity to speak to Rufus E. Jones, Jr. the President of the James Weldon Johnson Foundation, for further clarity on the Black National Anthem. Here’s what we learned:
The song was NOT originally called Lift Every Voice and Sing
“When James Weldon Johnson wrote the lyrics for the song in 1900, he originally called it “National Hymn,” says Jones. This can be observed in Johnson’s own handwriting thanks to Johnson’s wife, Grace Nail Johnson gifting his work to Yale. “Yale’s Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library has preserved this primary source in the curatorial area called the “James Weldon Johnson Memorial Collection,” says Jones. “Clearly, by his hand, he called it “National Hymn.”
So, how did we start calling it “Lift Every Voice and Sing” or The Negro National Anthem?
The song received its better-known names—Lift Every Voice and Sing, and The Negro National Anthem, now known as The Black National Anthem—by word of mouth.
“Think about it,” says Jones. “This was 1900. James Weldon Johnson and his brother who wrote the music for National Hymn didn’t have access to Xerox machines. They sent the music they wrote to be printed in New York. Once the copies came back, the song was ready to be performed in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday by 500 schoolchildren in Jacksonville, Florida. Then word about the song spread. People didn’t know its initial name. They would have done what we do when we don’t know the name of the song, sing the first line of it. That is how we came to call it Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Jones doesn’t think Johnson would have minded that we currently call the National Hymn by different names. “You can call it what people are comfortable calling it,” he says.”But know what Johnson called it. Know the history of the song.”
It is a Hymn. It is also, by definition, an Anthem.
National Hymn, as the name implies, is a hymn, which is defined by Merriam-Webster as “a song of praise to God, a metrical composition adapted for singing in a religious service, a song of praise or joy.” We can see this in the final verse of Lift Every Voice:
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 he wine of the world, we forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, May we forever stand.
True to our GOD, True to our native land….
It is also, by definition, an Anthem, which is defined by Merriam-Webster, “as a song or hymn of praise or gladness, a usually rousing popular song that typifies or is identified with a particular subculture, movement, or point of view.”
There is a reverence to National Hymn, as both a hymn and an anthem that Jones says should be respected, noting that we don’t sit when we hear it played, we stand. “This has nothing to do with the National Anthem. For this song, you stand up!”
The National Hymn, and the praise and work songs that precede it, the Negro Spirituals, are powerful elements Jones says we need to hold onto. “These songs are our source of power,” he notes. “And when you understand your source of power, you can never be considered inferior.”
Johnson, though knew not to call it an anthem at the time
While Johnson understood the impact and power of the National Hymn, he knew, as a Black man living in the early 1900s not to call it an anthem, Jones explains, “This is from oral history. Johnson knew what would happen if folks called it an anthem. He knew white folks would go crazy about it.”
Yet James Weldon Johnson emphasized art as a vehicle to combat oppression. “This was Johnson’s vehicle for equality,” says Jones. “Black folks were singing this song 30 years before the Star Spangled Banner became the National Anthem. Even after post-reconstruction, even after Jim Crow and lynchings. Even after all of those forms of oppression. Listen to the harmonies of Lift Every Voice and Sing, the music, the lyrics. That is why it has endured for 123 years. And it’s only getting stronger. It’s Black Excellence.”
“The debate really is, well, why do white folks go crazy about it being called The Black National Anthem?” says Jones. “No one is saying to supplant the Star Spangled Banner. Listen to the lyrics and understand the lyrics of the song and understand the history and where it comes from. Maybe you might learn something.”
Whitney Roberts is a writer, podcaster, and content creator based in Philadelphia, Pa. She has been featured in Wired Magazine, i-D Magazine, NBC, and xoNecole. She has contributed to Shondaland, Insider, and Parents.com.