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Song reflects racial pride, never intended as anthem

By Rudolph P. Byrd, Special to CNN
James Weldon Johnson composed the hymn "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" with his younger brother Rosamond.
James Weldon Johnson composed the hymn "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" with his younger brother Rosamond.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Professor: Timothy Askew's assertions on "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" historically inaccurate
  • James Weldon Johnson's hymn was sung by 500 African-American children at debut
  • Johnson brothers understood there was only one national anthem, professor says
RELATED TOPICS

Editor's note: Rudolph P. Byrd is the Goodrich C. White Professor of American Studies and the founding director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University.

(CNN) -- In a recent article on CNN.com, Timothy Askew, author of "Cultural Hegemony and African American Patriotism: An Analysis of the Song 'Lift Every Voice and Sing,' " makes certain claims regarding James Weldon Johnson's hymn that are not only historically inaccurate, but also are potentially harmful to Johnson's legacy as a pioneering figure in the modern civil rights movement.

"Askew decided the song was intentionally written with no specific reference to any race or ethnicity," the article stated. Nothing could be further from the truth.

The agnostic Johnson carefully reconstructs the genesis and context for the composition of his hymn in his autobiography "Along This Way." There he writes: "A group of young men decided to hold on February 12 [1900] a celebration of Lincoln's birthday. I was put down for an address, which I began preparing; but I wanted something else also."

Along with his address, Johnson initially was interested in writing a commemorative poem in honor of Abraham Lincoln but abandoned that idea for lack of time, and instead composed with his younger brother J. Rosamond Johnson "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing."

As Johnson composed his loving tribute to his race and nation, he wept: "I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so." On the occasion of its debut, the hymn was sung by 500 African-American children, many of whom were students at Stanton School, Johnson's alma mater and where, at the time, he was principal.

The context then for the composition of "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was an early Black History Month celebration organized by the black leadership of Jacksonville, Florida, decades before this tradition was institutionalized by the African-American historian and Harvard Ph.D Carter G. Woodson.

Not only does Askew mistakenly claim that Johnson composed his hymn without any "specific reference to any race or ethnicity," but he applies this erroneous, ahistorical and decontexualized reading to the lyrics themselves.

"Some people argue lines like 'We have come, treading our path through the blood of the/slaughtered,' signify a tie to slavery and the black power struggle. But in all essence," asserts Askew, "there is no specific reference to black people in this song."

While there is no specific reference to African-Americans in the hymn, the genesis and context make it impossible to ignore the centrality of the history of African-Americans and their heroic movement from slavery to freedom in a democratic republic that for centuries countenanced the contradiction of slavery, and later, segregation, to the hymn's inspiration and composition.

Without this context, which Askew surely must know, such a phrase as "the blood of the/slaughtered" cannot be fully understood. In his commentary on the hymn, Johnson observed that "the American Negro was, historically and spiritually, immanent. ..."

By ignoring the context and Johnson's own commentary, Askew is able to advance his wrongheaded interpretation of this hymn, which the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People adopted as its official song in 1920.

Askew is correct in stating that "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" "lends itself to any people who have struggled." Of course, this is true of all great works of art that emerge from the specific experience of a people and that rise to the level of universalism. Johnson understood and appreciated this dimension of the hymn.

"Recently I spoke for the summer labor school at Bryn Mawr College," he wrote in his autobiography, "and was surprised to hear it ["Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing"] fervently sung by the white students there and to see it in their mimeographed folio of songs."

As this story reveals, Johnson's hymn is not only part of the rich cultural background of African-Americans, but it is also part of the cultural background of all Americans.

In his eagerness to enter the debate regarding whether or not "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" should be sung as the black national anthem, Askew fails to offer an important clarification, which is that Johnson always regarded the song he composed with his younger brother Rosamond as a hymn, not an anthem. The Johnson brothers understood that there was only one national anthem: Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner."

While "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" was widely sung, even during Johnson's lifetime, as the "Negro National Anthem" he never encouraged this practice, but recognized it for what it was -- the spontaneous response of African-Americans who found in this hymn a source of racial pride.

And the fact that many African-Americans continue to sing this hymn as an expression of racial pride today represents a desire to remain connected to the history of slavery and the struggle for freedom while also affirming their national identity as Americans.

Let us be clear, Johnson was not a racial separatist. In his role as executive secretary of the NAACP, he was at the head of a national interracial coalition committed to the full realization of the promise of American democracy.

Askew's failure to provide this clarification leaves Johnson vulnerable to the charge of racial separatism, a stance that he steadfastly rejected throughout his life. This is a disservice to Johnson's legacy as both race man and patriot, not to mention to the truth.

There is the text and the context. A knowledge of the complex interplay between both is needed to appreciate the origins and continuing significance of Johnson's "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing." As reported in the earlier article, Askew fails to meet this widely accepted standard in scholarship, and in the process performs a certain violence upon a hymn cherished by many as well as Johnson's legacy.