“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.

Literary Wisdom: Still Lives…Waiting

“Chaton entre des livres” (Kitten Between Books)

Life is change. If you aren’t growing and evolving, you’re standing still, and the rest of the world is surging ahead. Most of the people are very immature. They lead “still” lives, waiting.  —Louise Penny, Still Life

Note: A-dor-a-ble postcard from Heather F. (AZmom on swap-bot) for the Cup and Chaucer group’s Literary Wisdom Swap #1. For the series, swappers send partners a book-related postcard with a quote from a fictional or poetic work that enlightens, inspires, or “shows us the way.” [I host the swap in two groups on swap-bot].

 

Dining on Books: What I’m Reading Now

I have been reading voraciously the last week or so–as if I had been locked in some bookless prison the last few months, though that cannot be true. I teach literature after all!

Even though I seriously enjoy the texts I use in the classroom, that reading list is not for me. It’s for students–the texts I think best speak to the people, the milieu, the genre and will best prepare them for work beyond their degrees. After so many readings, those texts no longer feed my soul, fill me up or shake something up inside.

So what have I been reading? And what’s on my reading list for the next week or so?

  • As I mentioned last week, I completed Denis Thériault’s The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman. Immediately afterwards, I quickly devoured The Postman’s Fiancée, the (stand-alone) sequel. Both are excellent reads–particularly if you are into haiku. These novels were passed on to me by my friend Cy and I think it’s a good idea to keep them moving. I have in mind who should read the books next, but I’d like to figure out some sort of tracking system, so as the books change hands, we know where they land.
  • Poetry! Thériault’s novels guided me back to my daily readings of the haiku masters. But I’ve been reading other poetry as well:
    • rupi kaur’s the sun and her flowers. Finally, finally I have time to savor every raw and simple line of her poetry.
    • I’m also reading Fractal Song: Poems by my friend (and retired? colleague), Jerry W. Ward, Jr. He signed and gifted the book to me when he came to my university to deliver a lecture in October. An incredible gift! Jerry’s poetry is a bit more heady, so it requires early morning reading and contemplating in silence.
  • At the recommendation of one of my besties, The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown. The chapter titles alone have me on the edge of my seat.
  • Max Lucado’s Be Anxious for Nothing: Finding Calm in a Chaotic World. The book seriously parses Philippians 4:6-7, a Bible verse I know backwards and forwards and in various translations because I repeat it constantly.
  • A couple of books I rescued from Cy’s toss heap:
    • The Dance: Moving to the Rhythms of Your True Self by Oriah Mountain Dreamer. Love her name!
    • The Simplicity Reader which combines in one volume three of Elaine St. James’ bestsellers–Simplify Your Life; Inner Simplicity; and Living the Simple Life. The book is a little dated, but I love the short, common sense, no nonsense readings.
  • And to balance the list a bit more I’m going to hit the public library tomorrow to pick up some “Shakespearesque” novels and the last book in Francine Rivers’ series, Lineage of Grace.

This should keep me busy till the middle of next week. Then, I’ll shift gears and start thinking about spring semester. 😉

What are you reading for the long holiday weekend?

A Last Nearby Song: Ending Autumn with Haiku

“Native Awareness.” Photo by Gale D. (grstamping on swap-bot)

I just completed the novel The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman by Denis Thériault. It’s the kind of read one can finish in one sitting, but it took me a couple of days because I read slowly while waiting in the carpool line or just before falling asleep. The book is based on the Zen concept of ensō. It feels a lot like Kafka, whose absurdist works I love, but it also feels like haiku, which is a prominent feature of the novel.

And that might be the reason I returned to my favorite book of haiku and have been reading haiku all week. However, [Kobayashi] Issa’s poem, which I didn’t see in the collection, is worthy of the last day of autumn:

evening cicada–
a last nearby song
to autumn

Gale D’s photos are brilliant reminders of the best of the season and an appropriate end to the autumn posts for the week. The photos were sent for an “A Thousand Words” group swap. The top photo was shot in Mattawa, Canada. The photo below in Orillia.

“Drive by in Orillia.” Photo by Gale D. (grstamping on swap-bot)

Somehow, the novel set in Canada, the Japanese haiku, and photos captured in Canada come together and make perfect sense for the last day of autumn–in my mind at least. 😉

Guest Post: When I Fell in Love with Words

One of the things I absolutely love about being an English professor is the regularity of my encounters with students who love language and literature as much as I do. I enjoy the connections we make over literature and the animated discussions that result from our (often divergent) readings of the same texts. Today’s post is written by Tyhara Rain, one of the brilliant students I’ve connected with over the last couple of years. Tyhara is a talented writer and artist with a sweet spirit and bubbly personality that draw people to her. She always has a lot to say, and here, she writes about where her love for words began.

Tyhara Rain. Photo Credit: Amanda Pitt

My family and I moved to the United States from Paraguay a year before I was old enough to begin kindergarten. At the time, my sister, Taleah, was six-years-old, so as in most things, she pioneered the way to school in the U.S. As a first grader, she learned the English language quickly, as did I, but she was taught something I could only dream of for two more years.  She learned to read.  I watched as my sister would become engrossed in small books and envied her age and her ability to read.

Although many children learn to read even before attending school, with a working father and a non-English speaking mother, reading before entering the first grade did not happen for me.

Though learning to read was a life changing experience, I cannot pretend to recall the process. It seemed as if I were reborn after the move to this different country. I have very few memories of the first three or four years of living in America, but I do recall my fifth grade year vividly.

With all the initial expenses of our move to the United States, there simply wasn’t enough money for lavish things such as televisions or computers in our tiny apartment. Even as we became more established in the U.S., my parents still did not purchase a television for our home. Therefore, I found my source of entertainment in books. I had a wild imagination and every adjective, noun, and verb written by the author helped me paint the most detailed illustrations in my head as I delved deeper and deeper into the pages of mystery or science fiction novels.

Because of all the reading I did at home, during class free time, and–if the book was really good–during lunch and recess as well, it was no surprise that I had an extremely well developed vocabulary and high reading level.

I remember begging my fifth grade teacher, Mr. Clark, to allow me to go upstairs where the high schoolers were to pick out a book from their much larger and more diverse selection of books. For the first few months Mr. Clark denied my request and told me to read the books that were in his library. It was incredibly irritating; we both knew that I had been reading his books since I was in the third grade, and there were very few books in his small library that I hadn’t read that interested me. To make matters worse, my sister had become less tolerant of my reading books she’d checked out for herself, so she returned them immediately after finishing them, not giving me time to finish the chapters I still had left to read.

Finally in the beginning of the third quarter Mr. Clark allowed me to go upstairs to Mr. Mugane’s English classroom to check out a book. I was thrilled. Mr. Mugane welcomed me, recognized me as a sibling of one of his best students, and ushered me into his classroom lined with endless shelves of books and a thousand different worlds I could enter simply by opening them.

Reading higher level books had its challenges, especially the frequency with which I would come across new and difficult words. It was much easier to simply ask what the words mean, but my dad was adamant about sending me to look words up for myself if I did not know the meaning. I began to read higher level books with a dictionary at my side, just in case I came across an unfamiliar word. As a result, my vocabulary continued to increase exponentially throughout the next years. Whenever I discovered new words, I found ways to incorporate them into everyday conversations to remember them in the future.

Reading a broad base of authors helped me tremendously with presenting proper sentence structures, correctly spelled words, and different writing styles. As a result, I excelled in English classes. What had once been a simple hobby, morphed into a wonderful passion for words, reading, and writing.

As a thirteen-year-old eighth grader I decided that I wanted to become an English professor. Mr.  Paul Mugane, my incredibly brilliant and dedicated English teacher from Kenya, inspired me. I wanted to verbalize my thoughts like him, compose my sentences as he did, and express myself with the same eloquence. I fell in love with his mind and expressiveness. He had such a way with words I would sit in the front row of class enchanted, like a schoolgirl in love with the classmate giving a presentation, as he taught. I soaked up everything he had to teach from Greek and Latin roots to the different connotations of words.

Mr. Mugane doted on me, as I was one of the most attentive and passionate students he had. He rarely reprimanded me for talking too much–which I always did–and took extra time to grade my papers, writing lengthy notes on the margins and even letting me review my paper with him after class.

In that classroom I truly fell in love with the English language and after sharing this with him, Mr. Mugane told me that to follow in his footsteps I would need to become an English major in college. I kept that information with me as well as my passion for English throughout the rest of my high school years.

Five years later, I messaged him from college, thanking him for the work he invested in me and for nurturing the seed of passion I had for English and for helping me reach a milestone.

As an English major, I am one step closer to reaching my dream.

*Book photos from Pixabay.

Get Up and See!

Today is my birthday!

Normally, I spend the days leading up to my very own day contemplating the past months and making plans for the the days ahead.  My “New Year’s resolutions” begin October 2, not January 1. Not so this year. The last couple of weeks have been filled with anxiety, noise, and internal clutter, and I haven’t been able to grasp the calm I need to get the internal work done. It did not help to wake up in the wee morning hours to the horrible news of an attack in Vegas.

But I am grateful. To be alive (I’m familiar with the alternative). To be well (for the most part). To be accepted. To be showered with love (and brownies, every now and then). For the many, many good people and experiences my many days have brought to me.

Exactly five years ago one of these good people–at that time a new friend–gave me a beautiful card for my birthday. Because it “lives” on my desk, I see it frequently, but today I took a moment to appreciate it again.

“Rita Dove,” detail of The Furious Flower Portrait Quilt, 2004. Mixed media collage on canvas. Artist: Malaika Favorite

The portrait of U.S. Poet Laureate (1993-95) Rita Dove is part of a 24-poet/panel masterpiece by mixed media artist Malaika Favorite which honors the history of African American poetry. The work was commissioned for Furious Flower, a conference held every decade (since 1994), that celebrates, stimulates, and encourages African American poetry and poetic voices.

Dove’s poem, “Dawn Revisited,” from her collection On the Bus with Rosa Parks, is printed on the back of the card.

Imagine you wake up
with a second chance: The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading

glorious shade. If you don’t look back,

 the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits –
eggs and sausage on the grill.

The whole sky is yours

 to write on, blown open
to a blank page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.
The poem is the swift kick in the butt I need to “shake a leg” and get things done!  Please excuse me while I get up and see…

There Came a Wind: An Artist’s Interpretation of Emily Dickinson’s Poem 1593

As usual during summer break, I’ve been taking some time to declutter our home. In one day, I cleared several crates of stuff and found a number of treasures. One such treasure was a beautiful piece of art one of my students completed many, many, many years ago for a literature class.

Response to Emily Dickinson, Poem 1593 by Z. Lott

Students typically have difficulty reading poetry. Gasp! I’m convinced they create a mental block when they hear the word “poetry.” To decrease the pressure and to help them realize their capacity for understanding and interpreting poetry, I have students craft a creative response to a poem.  Students can write another poem, compose a song, create an art piece, etc. in response to a poetic work (from a list of “approved” poems). Through the exercise, students typically learn they understand more than they think and develop confidence to complete the other poetry assignments.

My student chose Poem 1593 by Emily Dickinson, one of my favorite American poets.

There came a Wind like a Bugle –
It quivered through the Grass
And a Green Chill upon the Heat
So ominous did pass
We barred the Windows and the Doors
As from an Emerald Ghost –
The Doom’s electric Moccasin
The very instant passed –
On a strange Mob of panting Trees
And Fences fled away
And Rivers where the Houses ran
Those looked that lived – that Day –
The Bell within the steeple wild
The flying tidings told –
How much can come
And much can go,
And yet abide the World!

The picture does the visual work of the poem. Do you see it?

I like the message of Dickinson’s poem. Whether literal or figurative, storms come. Storms wreak havoc and destruction. Storms go. The world remains. Life is righted again…eventually.

Exactly (almost) three years ago, I “discovered” another student’s artistic rendering of a poem and blogged about it. You can see it here: “The Lamb, The Tyger, and the Lion.”

Enjoy!