An Anthem We Can All Sing

Lift every voice and sing 

Till 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 till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening 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,   

Till 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 hast brought us thus far on the way;

Thou who hast 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    James Weldon Johnson*

Today the church celebrates James Weldon Johnson, a man of many talents and contributions, including writing, speaking, diplomacy, reconciliation,  activism, and teaching. Throughout his life, from birth in 1871 until death in 1938, he sought to make the world better for his people and, indeed, for all people. 

He was a gifted writer, as exemplified in sermons such as “The Creation” and poems such as “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” They allowed the world to be exposed to how African Americans saw and understood their world and their faith. Introduced to “The Creation” in high school,  the imagery and the expression of God creating the world in a manner I’d never heard captured me. It was seeing a familiar story through different eyes. It is still one of my favorite works.

I first remember hearing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as part of a presentation opening the 1991 General Convention of the Episcopal Church. I was still coming to grips with my upbringing in the South and the changes in the country and the world. While I liked the catchy tune, I still had trouble singing the hymn with any real feeling of connection. Over the intervening years, I’ve heard it with increasing frequency. I’ve also changed my world perceptions. I look at things with different eyes, and in the song, I now see a song all of us can join in singing, especially the third verse. 

Examining the words, I’ve learned to see not only black history in its content but also the struggles of many others. Until there are no more second-class citizens, no more place names, teams, and racial jokes, we won’t genuinely have reached even the edge of equality. I don’t want to co-opt the song or the reasons for its existence and meaning. Still, I appreciate its contribution to understanding and appreciating the struggles and contributions of James Weldon Johnson and the people and their predecessors for whom the poem was originally written.

The struggle for equality has been hard for almost everyone of every race, culture, ethnicity, orientation, and belief. The battle isn’t over by any means. Still, Johnson’s words urge us all to unite in fighting injustice and inequality wherever it occurs. As the prophet Micah put it, “…Do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God” (6:8). It’s as necessary today as it was when Micah spoke it. We haven’t gotten nearly as far in following it as we possibly could. Maybe a few more rousing hearings and singing of “Lift Every Voice” might encourage us along a bit.

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,   

May we forever stand.   

True to our God,

True to our native land.

Hear! Hear!

*Poem found at Poetry Foundation. 

Image: James Weldon Johnson, half-length portrait at desk with telephone (1900). From the Library of Congress.  Found at Wikimedia Commons.

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