The Black National Anthem, aka Lift Every Voice and Sing, should never suffer the indignity afflicted upon it Wednesday night at the White house.
There was Smokey Robinson, one of America’s best singer-songwriters, smiling at the camera while drawing an absolute blank. There was Jennifer Hudson looking similarly perplexed, along with Morgan Freeman, Natalie Cole and the evening’s host, President Obama.
There they were, at the end of the White House’s Civil Rights Concert, with big grins, bright eyes and virtually no idea of the words beyond “Lift every voice and sing.”
It was sad and shameful, pitiful and pathetic.
Look, I know everyone won’t take it upon himself to commit the song to memory. And seeing how it’s usually sung just a couple of times per year at most, I understand why there’s often some uncertainty in getting through the first verse (let alone the frequently abandoned second and third verses).
So it’s no surprise that Robinson and others in the East Room didn’t know the words at the end of event, televised Thursday by PBS. The same is true for many, if not most of us.
Obama should have followed the lead of typical event organizers who want the song as part of the program: Distribute the lyrics!
But the singers’ cluelessness wasn’t the only reason I simmered while they butchered James Weldon Johnson’s sacred song. Their full-watt smiles and light-hearted attitudes were totally inappropriate for the solemn message of Lift Every Voice and Sing.
It was enough to make me want to slap them. I admit that I’m somewhat a zealot when it comes to the song. I simply don’t think it’s asking too much for us to 1) memorize all three verses and, 2) sing all three verses every time the song is sung.
I mean, if it’s really our own national anthem, shouldn’t we at least know what it says? Shouldn’t we take it seriously enough to include the second and third stanzas? Shouldn’t we reflect every time, using the occasion to remember the pain of our ancestors (felt in the day when hope unborn had died), giving thanks for their perseverance (their steady beat with weary feet)?
Robinson et al acted as if they were singing any ol’ song. But those words and verses are too powerful and too meaningful to be given such short shrift. If you don’t know the lyrics and have to fake it, for goodness sake don’t stand there grinning like a fool, acting like its happy hour at a karaoke bar.
Aside from handing out the lyrics, there was an even better solution to the cluster#@%$ that concluded a great night of music: The Howard University Choir should have led the song.
Lift Every Voice and Sing is a hymn as much as anything. And the HU Choir (which performed that night but wasn’t aired on the PBS production) was all set to sing it until Ricky Minor opted for a star-studded flop of a finale. Minor, the Emmy-nominated music director of American Idol, served as music producer for the PBS production. Apparently, he doesn’t understand that Lift Every Voice and Sing calls for dignity and integrity, which the choir would have delivered in abundance. (Check out the HU Choir and tell me they shouldn’t have closed the show). Instead, he called for the Hollywood treatment, and the result was abominable.
But that’s over and Black History Month will soon end. Before another one goes by, we need to combat our lackadaisical attitude toward our so-called black national anthem. The way we treat the song is more like a black national disgrace. Do yourself a favor and encourage your family and friends to do the same. Look up the words. Study them. Feel them down in your soul. Memorize them (all three verses). And when the song appears on the next program you attend, insist on the long version.
Eschew the lyric sheet. Hold your head high and proud. Then lift your voice. And sing. I dare you to do it without getting a lump in your throat.
- 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 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,
- '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.
Deron Snyder is an award-winning journalist and freelance writer based in Upper Marlboro, Md.