Lift Every Voice A Family Perspective
Today we'll get a family perspective of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" from Melanie Edwards, the granddaughter of its composer Jay Rosamund Johnson.
Melanie and I have been friends for over 30 years at a friend's Harlem brownstone in December of 2022, she described the circumstances that led to its first performance in 1900.
Melanie Edwards From what I've read, because I wasn't there, Rosamond was teaching music out of his parents house on the porch, and James Weldon was the principal of Stanton School. Some people suggested that there be a program to honor Lincoln and acknowledge his contributions. Well, that morphed into a Lincoln Day program for which James Weldon wrote a poem. He asked Rosamund to set the poem to music, which he did. The legend. And Along This Way, comments that it was done and performed by a group of children. Five hundred children is a number kicked around.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: And Along this Way is James Weldon Johnson's autobiography?
Melanie Edwards: Yes.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: Can we talk a little bit about the message of" Lift Every Voice and Sing"?
Melanie Edwards: I find it interesting that this song is about as explicit as one can get, especially in expressing the dual nature, as W.E.B. Dubois used to comment, on being Black and American. And while most people focus on the optimism and the uplift of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," when you read the lyrics carefully, I've often been amused - who would rhyme, watered and slaughtered?
Dr. Kevin McGruder: Melanie is referring to the second verse, which is sung here by the Kuumba Singers Which song of Harvard College, is brutally honest.
Kuumba Singers: We have come over a way that with tears has been watered. We have come treading our path through the blood of the slaughered. Out from the gloomy past til now we stand at last where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: The third and final verse emphasizes the important role of faith in the lives of African-Americans.
Kuumba Singers: God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, thou who has brought us thus far on the way.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: The song concludes by stressing the link to American citizenship.
Kuumba Singers: Shadowed beneath Thy hand may we forever stand, true to our God, true to our native land.
Dr. Kevin McGruder: In his autobiography, James Weldon Johnson noted that shortly after the February 1900 performance of Lift Every Voice and Sing: "My brother and I moved from Jacksonville to New York, and the song passed out of our minds. But the schoolchildren of Jacksonville kept singing it. They went off to other schools and sang it. They became teachers and taught it to other children. Within 20 years, it was being sung over the South and in some other parts of the country. Today, the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.".
Dr. Kevin McGruder: In January of 2021, South Carolina Congressman James Clyburn introduced H.R. 301, a bill to amend Title 36 United States Code to establish the composition known as Lift Every Voice and Sing as the National Hymn of the United States. A year later, in February of 2022, Melanie Edwards testified before the House Committee on the Judiciary in support of the bill.
Melanie Edwards: By your designating it the national hymn, which is what James Weldon himself called it, you add another piece to America's already great cultural legacy and heft. Greatness is not just defined by strength or use of force. Great nations, like great people, are additionally magnanimous, self-aware and self-correcting. By approving this bill, your legacy will be acknowledging the dark and gloomy past of American history, yet assuring others that grace and continued effort are rewarded by change: social, economic and spiritual. This song, penned by my forbearers, to America for America, I invite you to claim it as your legacy and your gift from America to the world. Thank you for your time.