“Lift Every Voice and Sing”

James Weldon Johnson, 1871-1938. Poet, novelist, statesman, civil rights leader, lawyer. Artist, Winold Reiss (1886-1953). Pastel on artist board.

The song dubbed “The Black National Anthem” should need no introduction, but I learned last October–moments after I posted an article focused on the University of Florida’s playing the song at the arrival of white supremacists on campus–that many Americans are not familiar with the song. In fact, one (Euro-American) friend uncharacteristically responded by declaring UF’s actions “racist.”

[We’ll save discussion about how that action could not have been “racist” for another time].

My friend’s judgment was based on the title of the article. She had never heard the song.

That surprised me. I’m pretty sure I initially learned the song at the majority white elementary school I attended, so I assumed it was standard for elementary kids in the U.S. Not so, I guess.

So what is the “Black National Anthem?”

The  “song,” actually entitled “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” was written as a poem by African American poet James Weldon Johnson to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It was later set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson.

The song gained popularity, was adopted by the NAACP, and was dubbed “The Black National Anthem.” But if we pay close attention to the lyrics, we’ll find that even though the song resonates with African Americans, it speaks to a broad American experience, one that in spite of its “informal” title, celebrates our collective history, freedom, and unity, one that speaks of faith and hope. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” feels more inclusive than the official national anthem of the U.S.A., “The Star Spangled Banner.”

I invite you to read the lyrics.

Lift every voice and sing,
Till 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 till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning 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.

Then, listen to this amazing arrangement sung by the “Choir of the World,” the Aeolians of Oakwood University:

See the Poetry Foundation for a a brief biography which references James Weldon Johnson’s extensive bibliography. A favorite for many is God’s Trombones.

Carter G. Woodson, Black History Month, and “Lifting the Veil of Ignorance”

Did you see yesterday’s (February 1) Google doodle? The doodle appropriately featured “The Father of Black History,” Carter G. Woodson, and, when clicked, provided links to the many articles and websites focused on Woodson.

If you missed it, here it is [image links to Google search on Woodson].

Google Doodle by Artist Shannon Wright

Woodson was concerned about the role of African Americans in history. He wrote of the history and hoped to “lift the veil of ignorance.” His work, The Miseducation of the Negro (1933), which critiques the American educational system for its failures to include accurate and deep attention to Black history, is still relevant, valued reading at many colleges and universities. He founded the Association of Negro Life and History (now, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History) and launched Black History Week which later expanded into Black History Month.

Every February, we face the same questions about why there is a need for Black History Month (BHM); we endure the same declarations that BHM is “racist,” or that it valorizes one “race” over another. It’s frustrating to hear these statements year after year after year; they unveil a myopic view of the USA and its peoples that rejects any well-reasoned response.

As many times as we’ve explained that American history, as typically taught, erases the full participation of nonwhites from the narratives, some people simply can’t/don’t/won’t get it. They continue to rant and rave that if “African Americans contributed, then they’d be in our history books.”

I no longer waste my energy.

If our schools offered comprehensive study and examination of American history–that included the contributions of all Americans–perhaps, there would be a reason for the question.

But they don’t.

Even with BHM, the same names are repeated with little attention to the broader work, contributions, struggles, and progress of African Americans.

Boondocks Comic Strip, Aaron McGruder, February 8, 2000.

Another point many people miss is that BHM is not a “national holiday for Blacks only.”  It provides an opportunity for all Americans to educate themselves on the work of African Americans who have “made history” because of their contributions in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math), medicine, music, literature, law, philosophy, dance, psychology, social justice, athletics, and so much more.

[I found the cartoon above on an IG page. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find the original author. Forgive the misspelling of “y’all,” but please don’t miss the point].

Instead of writing for pages about why we still need Black History Month in the USA, I’ll leave you with a few links to articles that provide background information and that sufficiently make the point.

And for laughs–or a good cry–check out the brilliant and (necessarily?) irreverent satire of Aaron McGruder on Black History Month: Black History Month in “The Boondocks.”

Until next time…

The Fortunate One: St. Josephine Bakhita

Seeing the sun, the moon and the stars, I said to myself, ‘Who could be the Master of these beautiful things?’ I felt a great desire to see him, to know him and to pay him homage.    –St. Josephine Bakhita

Today’s “Focus on Black” post comes because I was a little surprised to learn that many people I spoke with could not name one Black saint, though even if not Catholic, they knew the names of European saints. Indeed, the only individuals I spoke to who knew about Black saints were two students who attended Catholic primary and secondary schools.

So, though there are many Black saints, today I’m introducing you to St. Josephine Bakhita (1869-1947), Patron Saint of the Sudan.

Saint Josephine Bakhita, 2003. Oil on canvas. Artist, Janet McKenzie

We know very little about Bakhita’s early life, but she was born into a prominent family in the western Darfur region of Sudan. Her path to sainthood began with terror:

She and a friend were walking through a field in her native Sudan when she was abducted by armed slave traders.  She was so terrified upon capture that she forgot her name. The slavers called her “Bakhita,” which means fortunate.

Bakhita endured terrible cruelty at the hands of a succession of owners. Her fortunes truly changed when she was

purchased by Italian consul Callisto Legnani, who treated her with kindness and respect. Legani left her with a friend, Augusto Michieli, and his wife in Italy.  Bakhita served as caretaker of their newborn daughter, Mimmina.  When business required the Michielis to travel, they entrusted the girls to the Canossia Sisters of the Institute of the Catechumens in Venice. There, Bakhita came to understand the God who had given her the fortitude to overcome the hardships of slavery. After several months, she received the sacraments of initiation and was given the name Josephine. She remained with the Sisters and served as a nun for the rest of her life, beloved for her kindness to children and visitors to the Institute.  When she died her body was displayed for several days as thousands came to pay their respects. –from 365 Days of Black History, I Only Know the Story

St. Josephine Bakhita, the first saint of Sudan, was canonized–made a saint–on October 1, 2000.

At her canonization ceremony, Pope John II said of her:

In today’s world, countless women continue to be victimized, even in developed modern societies. In St. Josephine Bakhita we find a shining advocate of genuine emancipation. The history of her life inspires not passive acceptance but the firm resolve to work effectively to free girls and women from oppression and violence, and to return them to their dignity in the full exercise of their rights.

To learn more, see:

For more black saints, see:

Until next time…

 

But If Not: MLK on Civil Disobedience

There is a reward if you do right for righteousness’ sake. It says that somehow that burning fiery furnace was transformed into an air-conditioned living room. Somebody looked in there and said “We put three in here, but now we see four.” Don’t ever think you’re by yourself. Go on to jail if necessary, but you’ll never go alone. Take a stand for that which is right, and the world may misunderstand you and criticize you, but you never go alone. For somewhere I read that “one with God is a majority,” and God has a way of transforming a minority into a majority. Walk with Him this morning and believe in Him and do what is right and He’ll be with you even until the consummation of the ages. Yes, I’ve seen the lightning flash. I’ve heard the thunder roll. I’ve felt sin’s breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul, but I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone, no, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. Where you’re going […], tell the world that you’re going with truth. You’re going with justice, you’re going with goodness, and you will have an eternal companionship. And the world will look at you and they won’t understand you, for your fiery furnace will be around you, but you’ll go on anyhow. But if not, [you] will not bow, and God grant that we will never bow before the gods of evil.         –Martin Luther King, Jr., “But If Not”

The quote above is from “But If Not,” a favorite Martin Luther King, Jr. sermon. The sermon, based on the familiar story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego–“the three Hebrew boys” of Daniel 3–was delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in November 1967.

If you’re interested in listening to the full sermon, click the “play” button below:

 

All Hail the Queen!

Last week, when my son and I were going through books and other materials looking for “the perfect” historical figure for his Black History Month project, we stumbled upon the beautiful portrait of “Queen Charlotte of England.” Though he did not choose her (no surprise there), he suggested that she should be the focus of my next weekly Black focus blog post.

He chose well.

After all the hoopla made over Prince Harry’s choosing Meghan Markle, a bi-racial American, as his princess, I realized that many people are not aware that Markle wouldn’t be the first “African-descended” woman to become British royalty.

You didn’t know?  Well, let me introduce you to Queen Charlotte of England.

Queen Charlotte 1744-1818, Portrait by Allan Ramsay

My 2005 agenda–too useful and beautiful to toss–365 Days of Black History, provides enough basic details about Queen Charlotte:

At the age of 17, Charlotte Sophia of Germany impressed King George III with a letter she wrote to the king of Prussia about political concerns in her area. On the urging of his mother, George sent for Charlotte. Immediately upon her arrival in England, critics focused on her African features. Horace Walpole wrote: “Nostrils spreading too wide. Mouth has the same fault.” Baron Stockmar, the queen’s personal physician, described her as “having a true mulatto face.”

Research by historian and genealogist Mario Valdes showed that Queen Charlotte’s ancestry can be traced to Margarita de Castro y Sousa, a black member of the Portuguese Royal House. It is probable that Charlotte’s family was descended from the black mistress of Portugal’s King Alfonso III.

Queen Charlotte married George in 1761, bore her husband 15 children, and assumed charge of the household when George became permanently disabled in 1810.  Although she never set foot on America’s shores, several U.S. cities and counties bear her name.

You can find more about Queen Charlotte’s racial lines on PBS’s FrontlineThe Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families: Queen Charlotte or on the African American Registry site. For more portraits check out the National Portrait Gallery.

Queen Charlotte was an avid letter writer–my kind of queen! Her letters reveal a great deal more about her than the facts presented above, so check them out.

All hail Queen Charlotte!

Note: 365 Days of Black History (2005) by IOKTS Productions, published by Pomegranate.

Happy Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation

“Freedom from Slavery.” This statue, celebrating the end of slavery, was gifted to Gorée Island as a symbol of friendship between Guadeloupe and Africa. Photo shot in 2004 with an Olympus Camedia, my first “real” digital camera. 🙂

Happy New Year! I realize today is January 1 and New Year’s greetings are resounding throughout the world. January 1 means a clean slate, a fresh start, a brand new year to get some things done and get some other things right.  In those various ventures, I “wish above all that you would prosper and be in good health” [3 John 2].

January 1 is significant for other reasons. Foremost in my mind is that on this date in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation put the United States of America on the road to truly becoming the “land of the free.” Of course, it was–and continues to be–a long, hard road to realizing what it means that “all [humans] are created equal” and are “endowed with certain inalienable rights.”

And yes, I’m aware there was an “earlier attempt” at issuing the Proclamation and that Lincoln’s signing of it had less to do with his concern about the plight of enslaved persons in the USA and more to do with using [newly] freed Blacks to help win the Civil War and thus save the Union. But here we are, 155 years later, with no sanctioned slavery–or owning of human chattel–in the USA.

Because I have little choice, I’ve been thinking a lot about race in the United States. More so, since an “innocent” post on my Facebook page a few months ago led to a  word-battle between one of my Euro-American friends and a couple of my African American friends. That “dialogue,” which I eventually shut down by closing comments on the post, underscored how little “mainstream” Americans know about African American life and history, but it also revealed how our thinking on all sides reduces the other to a “single story.”

One of the problems with race as a construct is that we think we know each other. We have ideas that black people are…red people are…white people are…brown people are…yellow people are…We believe we know what individuals are all about on first sight of skin tone. This hurts us as a [human] race inexplicably and explains for the most part why the world is in such shape.

When I was in graduate school, another student in the class told me that “African Americans should get their own culture” in response to my presentation of a project for a course on modern theory–a hypertext “rewriting” of James Joyces’ Ulysses that makes the book relatable to people of color. Imagine my chagrin when little more than a decade later I heard those words echoed in my own classroom–addressed to the African American students in my class–via teleconference with students from University of Colorado-Boulder.

That statement underscores not only how little these individuals know about African American contributions and influences but also how much as Americans we are told/taught/convinced that anything that’s white is American and everything else is subculture, subpar, and inessential to the American landscape and character.

So…I’ve made a decision about my blog for this year. In addition to getting caught up on the “to be blogged” list of 2017, continuing to do Microblog Mondays, and all the other snail mail and photography randomness, I’m going to dedicate one post per week to Black history, culture, life, and politics.

That starts with today…So if you didn’t know before, now you know…There’s a special reason why African Americans and all other Americans should celebrate January 1. In fact, I’m convinced this should be bigger than “the fourth of July.”

Happy Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation!

A Moment with the Empress and the Lady

When I taught African American literature, blues artists Bessie Smith’s and Billie Holiday’s songs were key in deepening students’ understanding of the continuities of Black experience and literature and arts in America. I haven’t taught the literature since we moved to Northern Alabama, so their music is collecting dust. In fact, I think the collections are still in boxes.

A couple of days ago, I ran across a Billie Holiday postcard that I’ve had for quite some time–a familiar photo of Lady Day, with the signature gardenia in her hair.

Billie Holiday, c. 1936, Photograph by Robin Carson, from the Collection of Ole Brask

The sender’s note referenced listening to Billie Holiday and Bessie Smith days before sending the postcard. Interestingly, the day after rediscovering the postcard–yesterday, in fact–I received a Bessie Smith postcard from my postcard pal Connie F. Talk about coincidence!

Bessie Smith (1895-1937), Photograph courtesy of Michael Ochs Archives, Pomegranate Communications, Inc.

The music goddesses are telling me to take a moment for Bessie and Billie. They are the best medicine for the madness of the days ahead.

Perhaps, you need a moment too.

Here’s a listening guide of the Empress of the Blues, Bessie Smith, singing “Backwater Blues” with James P. Johnson on the piano:

And for your pure listening pleasure, a 30-song compilation of Lady Day’s “top songs.”

Both women’s lives were cut short, but their influence reaches far beyond their years on this earth, and they continue to make a powerful impact on music in America.