Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Story of the Black National Anthem

Yes, you did see Chaplain Sarah and me in tears today as we sang the closing hymn, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." This hymn has long been known as the "Negro National Anthem," or the "Black National Anthem." It was sung daily in black schools, immediately following the reciting of the Pledge of Allegiance.

The song was written in the year 1900 by the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson and was set to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson, for a celebration of Lincoln's birthday. In his autobiography, Weldon wrote of the song's composition that he paced back and forth on the front porch of his house, repeating the lines of the song over and over to himself in an agony of creation. When he came up with these two lines -- 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--he wrote that was when the spirit of the poem came full upon him.

So much has happened in the intervening 108 years since this song was written. So much has happened in my own life time. On this weekend when we honor Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and on Tuesday, when King's dream becomes reality as Barack Obama takes the oath of office and becomes our president -- the song just hit me. I thought of all those children in all those schools singing this song day after day in a world that offered them little hope for the future. I thought of Dr. King and his persistent leadership and witness. And I thought of our new president, a man elected not for the color of his skin, but for the content of his character.

The man who wrote this song, the people who have sung it over the generations, believed in the promise of our nation, trusted that the rule of law would prevail, that the Bill of Rights applied to everyone. Their faith has not been in vain.

Thank God!

+ Kit

(The photo above is a statue called "The Harp" by Augusta Savage. It is her visual representation of "Lift Every Voice and Sing.")


  1. I have long been a fan of James Weldon Johnson's poetry since I first became acquainted with God's Trombones when I was a boy. This is a wonderful hymn and it was heard as the Obama train traveled from Philadelphia to Washington.

  2. It's like the hymn was written for this occasion. When I really teared up during the swearing-in was when Rev. Lowery recited the last verse. I only wish they had sung the whole thing at National Cathedral!

    Great blog!

    Grace Burson, Curate, Grace Episcopal Church, Manchester, NH

  3. You know this is a my favorite - sorry I missed it!