The Dean’s Corner: Lift Every Voice

The Dean’s Corner: Lift Every Voice

The Very Rev. BJ OwensLift Every Voice And Sing is a hymn unlike any other. Often referred to as the “Black National Anthem,” the rousing and beautiful song is richly tied to the African American struggle that defines so much of our nation’s history.

It just feels different from any of our other hymns: it flows between cadences, interrupting us and drawing us deeper into its story. It moves dramatically between promise (“Sing a song full of the faith that the present has taught us”) to truth-telling (“treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered”) to a hope that this struggle will make our country the place of freedom and dignity that it claims to be.

Like most hymns, Lift Every Voice and Sing started as something else. James Weldon Johnson first wrote it as a poem and his brother, John Rosamund, wrote the music for it. It was sung in 1900 in honor of the birthday of Abraham Lincoln. The brothers had collaborated on five Broadway musicals before writing Lift Every Voice, so we shouldn’t be surprised that the hymn tells a rich story in song. It was soon adapted as the official song of the NAACP and became a beloved freedom song in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

This Sunday, when we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at Trinity Cathedral, we’ll celebrate with Lift Every Voice and Sing as well as a number of other hymns and spirituals that were favorites of Dr. King’s. It is traditional, of course, to sing it on this day and other days that celebrate freedom, reconciliation, and civil rights. But in singing it, we’re doing so much more. We’re honoring that the “Black National Anthem” holds a particular place of dignity in our hymnal – which is really a kind of cultural and theological canon. We honor the tears and the joy of the civil rights struggle as we commit, together, to continue the work.

When we sing hymns, the point is the we. We sing to God, together. We sing as one. We lift every voice: whoever we are, whatever our struggle may be, however deep our sin may touch us. When we sing, God gives us the grace and the perseverance to work for reconciliation; when we become lost in the honesty and joy of the song, I believe we receive a measure of the grace we need, right there in the moment.

Lift Every Voice and Sing is an anthem and a freedom song but on Sunday we sing it as a hymn, which means that it’s ultimately about the glory and love of God. It is God who carries us in struggle, it is God who humbles us and cleanses us of sin, it is God who empowers us to imagine and seek a future and a homeland where earth and heaven are joined in freedom’s bright song.

Shadowed beneath thy hand
May we forever stand
True to our God
True to our native land.

The Very Rev. Bernard J. Owens