I remember when I became Black.
There was a time when I was just a boy, a skinny thing who played both ways in Pee-Wee League football and measured my self-worth in how fast I ran or how high I could jump. Undefined by this slight variation in skin tone, my life was perfect.
There are few perfect things in the world. My mama’s sweet potato pie. When a kid is genuinely proud that he blew out all the candles on his birthday cake. Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean” performance at Motown’s 25th anniversary. The 23rd chapter of Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Angelou’s narration of her sixth-grade graduation is a perfect piece of storytelling. The story runs the gamut of every emotion a Black person will ever feel and ends with one of my favorite sentences ever written because it actually explains why a caged bird would sing.
“If we were a people much given to revealing secrets, we might raise monuments and sacrifice to the memories of our poets, but slavery cured us of that weakness,” Angelou writes. “It may be enough, however, to have it said that we survive in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets (include preachers, musicians and blues singers).”
Maya must have known Mrs. Patricia Douglas.
Mrs. Douglas was the music teacher. Let me be clear: she was not a music teacher, she taught music at the three predominantly Black elementary schools in my hometown. She taught at a different school every day and, if you lived in Hartsville, S.C. any time between 1968 and 2006, she was the music teacher. Mrs. Douglas is the reason everyone from my childhood knows the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the Black national anthem.
Being home-schooled at a young age, my mother hadn’t shielded me from whiteness so much as she surrounded me with Blackness. But I longed to go to school. I wanted to play on a playground and carry books in a knapsack. Having to raise your hand to speak and eating square pizza seemed like so much fun, which is why I cherished Wednesdays with Mrs. Douglas. On Wednesday afternoons, Mrs. Douglas gave me private piano lessons in her home and I was her prized student. I was a child prodigy and–if I could just remember to lift my wrists and keep my posture straight–I was on the path to becoming the next Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles. I was always eager to play for Mrs. Douglas because she had one thing that inspired students to perform at the highest level:
Mrs. Douglas was beautiful.
Even as a 10-year-old, I could see it. Everyone could. Perhaps the best way to contextualize her beauty is to say she was a combination of Thelma and Willona from Good Times. She had a pre-Beyoncé level of fineness that made little boys swoon and little girls belt their hearts out in perfect tune. And, she began every gathering with the Black National Anthem–“Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
It really is a perfect song. God must have laid that on James Weldon Johnson’s heart because, in 169 words, he somehow captured the entirety of the Black experience. The lyrics are at once painful and triumphant without wallowing in our trauma. And when we hit that “Sing a song...” part, we really spill out all of our Blackness. In the annals of Black music, “sing a song” ranks right up there with Frankie Beverly’s “Before I let you goooooooo....” or Ricky Bell’s confession that “it’s driving me out of my mind.” If there’s anything Black America can do, we can sing a song.
Mrs. Douglas did not teach me the Black National Anthem. I have never been in a setting where people actually learned the words or the melody. Everywhere I went, people just seemed to know it. Looking back, this was probably the work of Mrs. Douglas, but for the first ten years of my life, I assumed everyone was born knowing how to blink their eyes, do the Electric Slide, and sing “Lift Every Voice.”
One Wednesday, at the end of our hour-long lesson, Mrs. Douglas gave me a copy of the Maya Angelou bestseller along with the sheet music to “Lift Every Voice,” as if one were necessary to understand the other. She told me that she would be teaching me how to play the anthem for the next few weeks but we could only begin after I read the pages she had bookmarked. In the chapter, Angelou describes her elementary school class singing the Negro National Anthem. I’m sure my piano teacher was trying to stress the importance of the song to our history and culture but all I could remember is Maya Angelou describing her anger after a local school board official denigrated the entire Black race during her grammar school graduation ceremony:
We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous.
Then I wished that Gabriel Prosser and Nat Turner had killed all whitefolks in their beds and that Abraham Lincoln had been assassinated before the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation, and that Harriet Tubman had been killed by that blow on her head and Christopher Columbus had drowned in the Santa María. It was awful to be Negro and have no control over my life.
It was brutal to be young and already trained to sit quietly and listen to charges brought against my color with no chance of defense. We should all be dead. I thought I should like to see us all dead, one on top of the other. A pyramid of flesh with the whitefolks on the bottom, as the broad base, then the Indians with their silly tomahawks and teepees and wigwams and treaties, the Negroes with their mops and recipes and cotton sacks and spirituals sticking out of their mouths. The Dutch children should all stumble in their wooden shoes and break their necks. The French should choke to death on the Louisiana Purchase (1803) while silkworms ate all the Chinese with their stupid pigtails. As a species, we were an abomination. All of us.
Jesus. Was I supposed to be reading this? Were white people this bad? Was the song this good? And how would this help me play the piano? It did not help my posture at all. I know this was probably Mrs. Douglas’s attempt to ensure that I would thank her in one of the Grammy speeches that I would surely give later in life but, Ma’am...
I. Was. Ten.
Still, enthralled by her beauty and a little disturbed by her reading assignment, I committed to playing the fuck out of that song. And, by “playing the fuck out of that song,” I basically hit the keys harder and with more emphasis (Did I mention I was ten years old?). It was obvious that Mrs. Douglas was pleased. For the next few years, I played “Lift Every Voice” at all the Black functions around town, including Pastors’ anniversaries, cotillions and every Black History Month program. I didn’t even need the sheet music. I didn’t know any other songs. To this day, my entire piano repertoire consists of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” It was the only song I could interpolate into other keys.
But my favorite time to play the anthem was when Mrs. Douglas’s Combined Glee Club performed. The Combined Glee Club was basically the best singers from the Black elementary schools combined into one choir. Led by Mrs. Douglas, the CGC was the number-one ranked glee club in all of the greater Hartsville area. Not just anyone could be in the Combined Glee Club; you had to be selected by Mrs. Douglas. It was the official verification that you had musical talent. I’m sure some people put it on their college application.
If there was something Black going on, they were invited and those motherfuckers could sing. All of my neighborhood friends were on the Combined Glee Club and my best friend played the drums for them. (Yes, they had a drummer!) The CGC usually performed the Donny Hathaway version of “I Believe in Music” (which, until a few years ago, I believed was a song Mrs. Douglas had penned herself). But their specialty was opening up with “Lift Every Voice.”
If I am being honest, I have to admit that I am a tiny bit afraid of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” in the way that I am afraid of the Holy Ghost or making potato salad for a family dinner. I know how important it is to us, so I am afraid to mess it up. Even though I hadn’t been around white people, I somehow knew it was our song. I had never seen it on television or on the radio. It was like a secret handshake or a fried chicken recipe–It belonged exclusively to us. Plus, if I messed it up, Mrs. Douglas might not consider the marriage proposal I was planning in a few years. Every time I played “Lift Every Voice,” there was a lot riding on it.
When I finally started attending public schools, my mother enrolled me at a predominately white school where I was assigned to a homeroom where I was the only black kid in the class. I’d like to explain how the white kids made racist jokes at my expense but, if they did, I didn’t even notice it. In fact, spending time around white people for the first time at ten years old, I learned more about Black people than I learned about white people.
I had not assimilated the subconscious deference to whiteness that often accompanies being Black. I became acutely aware that white people are not smarter or even more educated than any of the kids in my neighborhood. They were perfectly mediocre. They didn’t know how to double-dutch and they didn’t even have a glee club. In music class, the teacher just passed out instruments and let the kids have jam sessions. How were they supposed to acquire their daily recommended dosage of glee? I was a little ashamed of going to school there, so I led all my friends to believe that I was still being homeschooled until they discovered the truth at the annual Holiday Music Showcase.
Every year, all of the schools would get together for a Christmas program to show off their best musicians and singers. The white schools would have violinists, saxophone players and ensembles playing classical music with terrible basslines. As for my predominately glee-less institution, we learned a special super-Caucasian rendition of “Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer.” I was just thankful that we didn’t have to follow the Negro Mass Choir. They were last on the program.
My white classmates were unmoved as each individual school performed and, with each successive song, I slunk lower in my seat. During Washington Street Elementary’s performance, as they lifted up His name with a perfect a cappella version of “Children Go Where I Send Thee,” a kid sitting behind me whispered:
“Look at all those lips!”
Everyone giggled. I did not.
Our performance was predictably lackluster (probably because I refused to sing). It sounded like an episode of Little House on the Prairie. It sounded like long division. Rudolph’s nose had never been so unremarkable. Had he heard those flat notes wafting through the Center Theater, I’m sure he would have been as ashamed as I was. We trudged back to our seats as the Baddest Glee Club in the Land took the stage for the last performance. Of course, they sang “I Believe in Music.” Accompanied by Mrs. Douglas on piano and my homeboy James on drums, they blew the doors off the place. Even my classmates were impressed because, when they hit one particular a cappella refrain that every Black choir does, my classmates were clapping along. They were off-beat, but they still clapped.
After a rousing round of applause, Mrs. Douglas announced the next song from her piano: “Lift Every Voice.” Of course, all of the Black people in the audience—even the children—stood up. None of the white kids even moved. I was the only person in my entire class who stood.
Mrs. Douglas didn’t play that shit.
She stood up from the piano and glared at the audience as if to say: “You motherfuckers better stand up and show some respect.” I had never seen Mrs. Douglas express anger. And she waited. And the choir waited. She looked. And the choir looked. As she scowled at the audience, Mrs. Douglas saw me standing and smiled. She waved me to the front of the auditorium and whispered in my ear: “You wanna play?”
By the time I sat at the piano and she ascended to the stage to direct the Combined Glee Club, everyone was standing. She looked at me with her usual glance and in one microsecond, my back straightened. My wrists were raised to the perfect 45 degree angle.
And just like that, I was Black.
For the first time since I had read Maya Angelou’s angry words, I was no longer afraid of the song. I don’t know if it was the repetition of playing so many times, or the hand of some unseen thing, but I was suddenly able to play and sing the song simultaneously. And goddamn, did that Combined Glee Club lift their voices. They sang that song.
I called Mrs. Douglas today.
I had so many questions. I wanted to ask her why she dragged me around town when I don’t have a sliver of musical talent. I really wanted to know why she made me read that book. I figured she’d tell me something about building my character, giving me a reason to socialize with people my age or how music helps the brain mature. Or maybe she’d make some perfect metaphor about birds in cages.
She did not answer.
I still have a song, though.
We are the song.