If you know the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” you’re most likely Black—and you also know it is often referred to as the Black National Anthem. If you’re White, you likely know none of the above.
To hear Dr. Claudette Sweet sing Lift Every Voice, click here
James Weldon Johnson penned the poem, Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing in 1899. Composer John Rosamond Johnson, his brother, set the words to music, and in 1919 the NAACP adopted it as its official song, dubbing it the “Negro national anthem.” Front Porch spoke to three generations of NE Denver neighbors to explore its meaning 120 years later, and its sometimes-controversial characterization as the “Black National Anthem.”
NE Neighbors’ Recollections of Lift Every Voice from the 40s to the 90s
Park Hill resident Dr. Claudette Sweet, a retired DPS literacy educator, received her education in the segregated schools of Beaumont, Texas in the 1940s and 50s. Sweet credits her mother and her teachers with instilling in her a love of music and African American culture and history. A mezzo-soprano, she shares insights on the song’s correct performance, including shifts in its timing with each stanza. She recalls being “really shocked” when she moved to Denver in the 1960s: “The people in the churches here in the North, they did not know that this song was the Black national anthem.” To hear Dr. Claudette Sweet sing Lift Every Voice, click here
Dr. Nita Mosby Tyler grew up in Atlanta in the 60s and 70s, where she attended the Baptist church led by Dr. Ralph David Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s close friend and advisor. “The song absolutely had great prominence on all kinds of levels for us in the church. It was a part of our hymnal and Rev. Abernathy always said pretty explicitly: ‘We’re not going to wait until Black History Month to sing this song. We’re always going to sing this song.’” Tyler is the founder of The Equity Project, First Lady of Denver’s Shorter Community AME Church, and Board Chair for the Denver Foundation.
Camille Osbourne-Roberts, a Stapleton parent of two, attended schools in central Los Angeles that were desegregated in name but were predominantly Black during the 80s and 90s. In first and second grade, “The books that we read and the lessons we learned were all geared toward self-pride.” Here she learned Lift Every Voice and Sing, which students sang after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. Though she thinks Blacks are “expected to know” the song, she recalls a Black fraternal organization’s event a few years ago, where voices dimmed as the song progressed past the first stanza, as fewer people knew the words.
Is it really a Second National Anthem?
Though Lift Every Voice and Sing—which has been performed by singers as diverse as Beyoncé and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir—continues to be referred to as the “Black national anthem” by many, others take issue with the moniker, which they see as divisive. Ultimately, however, the song resonates so powerfully not only because of its message of overcoming adversity and achieving excellence, but because, as Dr. Nita says, it speaks to African Americans’ “lived experience.”
Rev. Dr. Timothy Tyler, pastor of Shorter Community AME, says the song speaks to “the common experience of human suffering. There’s so much power in the Black story that it really speaks to anyone who has gone from the bottom and through traumatic odds and has been able to rise despite suffering.” But he also embraces it as specific to Black Americans’ experience and history: “We celebrate it and…I don’t think that our story should ever be separated from the American story. I just think that it [African-Americans’ story] is never included in America’s story; in fact, I think it is the foundation of the American story…and I think it’s important to characterize it [the song] as the Black national anthem.”
“There are pieces of our country’s national anthem that in many ways contradict what the Black national anthem talks about…it is the same flag that felt fine with slavery and the oppression of Black people in America—and so that sort of contradiction…gets talked about in the Black national anthem,” says Dr. Nita.
Like the Tylers, Sweet recalls the song typically being paired with the Pledge of Allegiance and the Star-Spangled Banner. Sweet says her teachers emphasized both pride in Black history and the nation, despite the country’s failings during an era when she was banned from even trying on clothes in a Denver department store due to her race. Sweet says, “If you will interpret the lyrics of the Star-Spangled Banner, you find it is pretty violent. I think our song is much more peaceful…the Star-Spangled Banner, we respect it…I will always sing it because it is a part of my upbringing.” She will not, however, sing the deeply problematic third stanza, which says in part “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave.”
Both Sweet and Osbourne-Roberts share their wish that schools today would instill greater knowledge of Black history and cultural pride. Osbourne-Roberts shares her disappointment over the resounding silence on Black history in her children’s curriculum across several DPS schools. She is intentional in educating her children on that history, including Lift Every Voice and Sing, and observes that the Black history that is taught centers on Martin Luther King, Jr., to the exclusion of all others. “It’s so much more complicated than that,” she says.
Lift Every Voice ends with “true to our native land.” It evokes patriotism while recognizing the hybrid identity many African Americans experience. Osbourne-Roberts says she’s shifted her focus in recent years from July 4th to celebrating Juneteenth, popularly associated with the end of slavery in Texas. With the flag now being used by many as a symbol of nationalism rather than patriotism, “I feel it is taking on new meaning that I can’t get behind,” she says.
Both Osbourne-Roberts and Rev. Tyler reflect on a popular YouTube video that uses Lift Every Voice to accompany images from African-American history. As the song reaches its crescendo, a clip shows President Obama coming onto a stage. Rev. Tyler says in the past people would cheer, but “Now when we play that video, you don’t have as much cheering…What we used to think was accomplishment, it feels like we have gone backwards—so I think it [the song] almost has a new energy in a different way.” For Dr. Sweet, however, Lift Every Voice is meant to uplift all Americans, and she focuses on its hope for a brighter future.