Why Didn't They Tell You?


that the Black National Anthem is a Christian, patriotic song of Hope?

that the Black National Anthem is a Christian, patriotic song of Hope?

The song dubbed the Black (Negro) National Anthem is Lift Every Voice and Sing.  Written by a true Renaissance man of many talents (writer, poet, educator, lawyer, diplomat, and civil rights leader), James Weldon Johnson and put to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson, an accomplished musician, as the 19th century was ending. It, indeed, became the Black People’s National Anthem. This black man James Weldon Johnson was appointed U. S Consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua by President Theodore Roosevelt whose statues are being toppled. It is truly an uplifting, Christian, patriotic song of hope. The last two lines of the song are:

True to our God
True to our native land

Clearly the native land referenced is the United States of America.

Having learned Lift Every Voice and Sing while a child in school in the Jim Crow South of the Mississippi Delta, I have always thought it was one of the most beautiful songs I have ever heard. Many, many artists have recorded this song, but it is most beautiful to me when sung by a church congregation or a united crowd of some kind. At the end of this essay, I have attached YouTube links to three of my favorite renditions (Diva Leontyne Price, the Roxbury Latin Glee Club, and the Winston Salem State University Choir). It was first performed in Florida in 1900 and would be performed thereafter whenever Black People congregated for important events.

In those segregated schools of the 1940’s and 1950’s, we learned the lyrics and sang the Black National Anthem along with other patriotic songs such as This is My Country, The Battle Hymn of The Republic, the Marine Hymn as well as the Star-Spangled Banner. Interestingly we also learned the lyrics and sang I Wish I Was in Dixie (Dixie). Thinking about the music and the songs we learned brings to mind two outstanding women who taught me during that era of Jim Crow: Miss Theresa Williams, a cheerful, light-complexioned lady of great character and Miss Young, a beautiful, very dark, almost completely black, lady who wore her hair in long flowing curls (not a wig).

Miss Theresa (she was really a Mrs., but Southerners called all women Miss) was my first teacher at Freewill School and was the only teacher of nine (9) grade levels in a one room school house with a partition in the middle. She played the piano and would at times bring all the students together to sing at the end of the school day. She taught us music along with the three R’s (Reading, ‘Riting, and ‘Rithmetic). She had to have been a good teacher because after three years there, I was fairly proficient in the three R’s. It must have been during the Korean War when she whipped me and Grover (with a rawhide strap) for fighting since she said, “If you think you’re men, maybe you ought to be fighting in the war” or something to that effect. By the way, we were fighting because Grover snatched my pencil and threw it in a ditch!

Miss Young was my music teacher in the 7th grade at Mound Bayou Consolidated School. In the 7th grade, you changed classroom and teacher every hour. One hour was devoted to music. She was a great teacher. No teacher I had during my entire student career at San Bernardino High School, Michigan State University, University of Chicago, and Tulane University was greater than she. Santa Lucia was one of the many songs she taught us. Patriotic songs were surely part of the repertoire.

Up through the 6th grade, we were taught songs by our homeroom teachers or by someone who came to the homeroom. I remember in the 4th grade when Miss Jacques taught us the music and lyrics to School Days and how she had corrected some of us who wanted to say “arithmetic” instead of “rithmetic”, as it is written in the song.

The Star-Spangled Banner comes out of the War of 1812, called by some the Second American War for Independence because had the British won, America would have lost its independence. The United States went to war with Great Britain because of economic sanctions imposed on America by the British, the western expansion issue, and because of the British practice of impressment of Americans on the open seas. This practice entailed the British taking men from American ships and drafting then into the British Navy. The combatants on the British side were the British themselves, a Confederacy of Native Americans led by Chief Tecumseh, and black slaves who escaped to British lines with the hope of being freed after the war was over. On the American side were the white Americans, Native American allies, free People of Color, and slaves who had escaped to the American lines with the hope of being freed after the war was over. Black sailors and soldiers at the Battle of Lake Erie and at the Battle of New Orleans fought valiantly and bravely for the American side. Initially being dubious of the fighting ability of the black soldiers sent to him, Commodore Perry changed his tune after witnessing their heroism and bravery in action in the Battle of Lake Erie with the words, “…they seemed absolutely insensible to danger.”1 Andrew Jackson recruited free “Negroes” for the Battle of New Orleans and promised them the same bounty and pay as the white soldiers. After preliminary campaigns leading up to the Battle of New Orleans, Jackson told his black soldiers that “the President would be informed of their conduct and that the “voice of the representatives of the American nation shall applaud your valor, as your general now praises your valor””2 Jackson’s statues are being toppled or are being called for toppling.

Neither the British nor the Americans completely lived up to their promises. Some of the slaves who fought were sent back to the owners because part of the armistice agreement required that “property” be returned.

By 1814, things had not gone well for the Americans, especially with the sacking of Washington, D. C. and the burning of the White House in August of 1814. Just before the British attack on Fort McHenry in the Battle of Baltimore, Francis Scott key was negotiating with the British in an attempt to free some American war prisoners when he ended up being detained by the British during the 25 hour-long bombardment of Fort McHenry which commenced on September 13 and lasted into the early morning of September 14. He observed the whole bombardment from the British side. To his surprise, he saw the American flag still standing and waving as the day dawned. Thus he penned the words of a poem Defence of Fort M’Henry. Later the name was changed to Star-Spangled Banner. Very soon the poem was set to the music that we now recognize as the melody of the Star-Spangled Banner.

Francis Scott Key was a slave owner, supporter of the system of slavery, anti-abolitionist, and a strong supporter of the colonization, namely, resettling blacks in Africa. However, it is not clear that he was a Negrophobe, that is, he did not necessarily hate Black People. I say this because as one of the executors of the will of John Randolph Roanoke, he fought, for a whole decade, to enforce the provisions of the will that freed Roanoke’s four hundred (400) slaves and that provided land for the slaves to support themselves. Additionally he represented slaves seeking their freedom. On the other side, he also represented slave owners seeking return of runaway slaves. Evidently he was a stickler for the law. That being said, there is nothing that can make slavery ok.

By the time of the Mexican-American War (1844-1848), The Star-Spangled Banner had become the de facto National Anthem of the United States. Woodrow Wilson by executive order in 1916 made it the official National Anthem and in 1931 Congress approved it as the National Anthem.

There is presently a call for the Black National Anthem, Lift Every Voice and Sing, to replace the Star-Spangled Banner as the United States’ National Anthem. The NFL plans to play Lift Every Voice and Sing at every NFL game for the first week of the season. Francis Scott Key’s statue in San Francisco was toppled almost a month ago (June 20). His offenses were being a slave owner and a line in the third stanza of his poem, wherein he says, “… No refuge could save the hireling and slave.” The slave fighting for the British and the hireling are enemy combatants from the vantage point of those on the American side. Moreover, it appears that the escaped slaves made a significant contribution to the British war effort as they did for the American side.  

You have probably noticed that generally only the first stanza of the Star-Spangled Banner is sung. I do not remember ever hearing the second, third, or fourth stanzas sung. Keeping in mind the circumstances under which the poem was written, the first stanza is very appropriate as our national anthem. Stanza three is certainly inappropriate. Therefore, let us discard the third stanza. Furthermore, there are several other traditional patriotic songs that could be performed, and, indeed, they are, depending on the event and circumstances: Battle Hymn of the Republic, God Bless America, This Is My Country, My Country ‘Tis of Thee, and Lift Every Voice and Sing are some of them. There are other less traditional songs such as God Bless the USA that can be appropriate under certain circumstances. Americans who are not of African heritage may not empathize with the lyrics of Lift Every Voice and Sing to the same extent as we Americans of African heritage. But at times it is appropriate to play it for a broader audience. There is no need to force it on others who do not feel it with the same intensity we do.

I believe we are cancelling and overturning too many things too fast. One example just came to my mind. Gayle Benson, owner of the New Orleans Saints and Dixie Beer, has made the decision to get rid of the name Dixie. Yet I wonder if she realizes where the name Dixie comes from. It originated in New Orleans before the Civil War. The Citizens State Bank located in the French Quarter issued a ten-dollar note with dix – the French word for ten – written on one side. Therefore, “The notes were known as “Dixies” by Southerners, and the area around New Orleans and the French-speaking parts of Louisiana came to be known as “Dixieland”3. And of course, Dixieland Jazz originated in New Orleans. Thus we had a connection between a beer company and an early French Quarter bank. Do we want to throw all of that away?

The period under discussion is the era of unregulated banking (sometimes called “Wildcat Banking”) when individual commercial banks could, and did, issue their own currency. In short, there was nothing unusual about Citizen State Banking issuing 10-dollar notes.   

  1. Franklin, John Hope (1967). From slavery to freedom: A history of Negro Americans, 3rd edition. New York: Alfred A Knopf, p. 169.
  2. Franklin, pp. 169-170.
  3. Songfacts, https://www.songfacts.com/facts/daniel-decatur-emmett/dixie

Lift Every Voice and Sing

James Weldon JohnsonJ. Rosamond Johnson

Lift ev’ry voice and sing
‘Til earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning 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 ’til 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
‘Til 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 has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has 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

 Star-Spangled Banner

Oh! say can you see, by the dawn’s early light,

  What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming;

  Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,

  O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming?

  And the rocket’s red glare, the bombs bursting in air,

  Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;

  Oh, say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave

  O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

  On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,

  Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,

  What is that which the breeze o’er the towering steep

  As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?

  Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam;

  Its full glory reflected now shines on the stream;

  ‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh! long may it wave

  O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

  And where is the band who so vauntingly swore,

  ‘Mid the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,

  A home and a country they’d leave us no more?

  Their blood hath washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution;

  No refuge could save the hireling and slave

  From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave,

  And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

  O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

  Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand

  Between their loved home and the war’s desolation;

  Blessed with victory and peace, may the Heaven-rescued land

  Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.

  Then conquer we must, for our cause it is just,

  And this be our motto, “In God is our trust”:

  And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave

  O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

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