“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…

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:

 

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.

Guest Post: “The Moral Moment” by Dr. Blue

As much as I would love to use today’s blog post to write about fun and lighthearted things as we enter the weekend, my heart has been heavy all week. We began classes for the semester a few days ago, but just before my first class, I ran across a photo snapped on the first day of class a couple of years ago–a sidewalk chalk protest: Mike Brown should be on his way to class too.

“Mike Brown should be on his way to class too.”

As I tried desperately to block out Charlottesville, Virginia and a failure of leadership to provide a moral response, I felt the chilling reality that this could have been Brown’s senior year in college deep in my soul. I voted Tuesday with no hope. It was just part of the process, my right as an American citizen, my duty as an African American. All week, I listened to children who are afraid and talked to students who are now very watchful and careful about their surroundings in a southern city where sightings of the confederate flag is not uncommon.

The question that came up time and time again, “What do we do?” What can we do?

Today’s post (which begins below) was written by Dedrick Blue, D.Min, Dean of Religion and Theology at Oakwood University. In response to the events of the last week, Blue calls us to reach inside and decide what we will do. The question is not “what can we do?” The question, he points out, is “what will I do?” We must answer that question for ourselves and make the decision to act.

***      ***      ***

Each of us will come to a moment in our lives when moral decency will beg for response. These are times of great moral and spiritual crises that test our metal and our faith. These defining moments shape history and shape our personal history. We have come to that moment.

As our nation grieves over the tragic events in Charlottesville, VA which left three dead and 19 injured at the hands of violent-sanctioned white supremacy, we are obliged to pause and reflect upon the meaning of the moment.

While some may argue over whether a Confederate statue should survive, be clear that was not the issue. The issue is whether people–black, brown, yellow, red, Jew, Muslim–should survive. The statue is just a symbol of the genocide perpetrated by white supremacy upon people of color and those not conforming to white Protestant, Anglo-Saxon phenotype.  Those white supremacists are unequivocal in their assertion that the inanimate statue has a greater right to American soil than breathing persons of color. They assert that the history of white supremacy and genocide is the true history of America. In this, they are both right and wrong. Rebellion and genocide are part of our history, but they are not to be our trajectory or our destiny. And certainly, genocide is not to be memorialized as something noble.

Our great Republic has never been perfect. And yet, this nation with Her hands and conscience soiled by chattel slavery, chose to repudiate Her past and march forward toward a more perfect union. This of course was not without costs. Our nation lost nearly a million of its citizens in a Civil War. The backlash from Reconstruction gave birth to Jim Crow and “strange fruit on southern trees.” Churches were bombed, buses were burned, leaders were assassinated, children were incarcerated and voters were intimidated in this march toward a more perfect union. Like Abel, the blood of those sacrifices cry out for justice from America’s soil, and plead that those sacrifices be not in vain.

Now we have come to this moment in our nation’s history, when the President of these United States has chosen to ignore the sacrifices of our bloody, glorious past. My first reaction is to say that he seeks to resurrect the demons of racism and white supremacy. However, truth be told, that ghoulish specter has never ceased to stalk our heels, and continues to lurk in our bedrooms and boardrooms. That poltergeist shoots down unarmed boys in the street, snatches healthcare from senior citizens, sits in legislative councils, and rewards robber barons with tax cuts. And now in this moment, we see our President acting as a medium to call up and invite that demon to sit at his welcome table.

Let us be clear. This is a pivotal moment in American history. It is a moment when this nation will either rise once more and strive toward her credo that “all men are created equal” or will slither back into the quagmire of its racist history.

But this is not just a pivotal moment for America. It is a pivotal moment for each citizen of America. For what is America if it is not each of us? America is not just a government; it is a people bound together by constitution and geography, but even more importantly, bound together by ideal. This moment now tests not only the government but also that ideal. We as a nation and as a people are challenged in this moral moment to vociferously repudiate the demons of white supremacy. We must not be silent now. We cannot run for cover or place our proverbial head in the proverbial sand and pretend that if we ignore it, it does not exist.

Neither can we retreat into apocalyptic passivism which takes the position that all these things are just signs of the end and Jesus will fix it all when He returns. If we choose to be silent now then, we do so at the peril of our souls. For our streets are stained with blood, our children cower in fear, and evil parades with torches of terror in our parks. Real people are dying.

To call upon our God to act, but refuse to act when God calls is spiritual schizophrenia at best and downright hypocrisy at worst. The God we serve is not only moved by injustice but moves against injustice. The examples are replete in Scripture. I need not repeat the stories of God’s intervention for the slaves of Egypt; His denunciations of oppression in the Book of Micah; or His admonition in the Torah to embrace the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

God acts!

We also learn from Scripture that in the time of moral and spiritual crisis, God not only moves into action but He also moves people into action. Moses had to agree to go to the most powerful ruler in the world and demand release of the Hebrew captives. In another era, God called upon a woman named Esther to reveal to the king a wicked plot to destroy the Jews perpetrated by the racist Haman.

God moves against injustice, but He uses people as His agents. And each of person has to come to that moral moment when he/she has to decide that the call and the cause are greater than the comfort of willful ignorance.

Every generation must face its moral moment. Martin Luther King, Jr. faced the moral moment on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. Rosa Parks faced the moral moment on the back of a bus. Heather Heyer faced the moral moment on a back street in Charlottesville.

This now is our moral moment. We must choose to hear the call and choose a response. The call comes to each of us in a different way. I dare not be so bold as to declare how God speaks and how He speaks to you. But I will be so bold as to say that God does speak and He always looks for a response.

One of America’s greatest statesmen, Dr. Martin Luther King, declared:

There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe nor politic nor popular, but he must take it because his conscience tells him it is right. 

The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.

Moral decency demands a response!

–Dr. Dedrick Blue, Dean of Religion and Theology, Oakwood University

Photo from Pixabay

Freedom Quilt Patterns | Farewell, Mrs. Crarey

(Log Cabin)

School ends in a few days and Mrs. Crarey, my favorite second grade teacher, is retiring.  I’m sad for all the children who will miss the opportunity of learning under such an amazing person, but I’m happy for her.  She’s earned her retirement and  she will certainly make deep impressions wherever she goes.

Mrs. Crarey is simply awesome.  Even with a classroom full of many different personalities and learning styles, she has a way of dealing with her students as individuals and stimulating their intellectual curiosity.  I love her not only because she is awesome but because she just loves my son, and even today–three years after he finished second grade–she is a friend of his heart.

I will always be grateful for the way she kept his curiosity piqued and gave him more challenging work when he surpassed benchmarks.  She used his love for reading, robots, science, animals, Star Wars, and mystery to keep him engaged.  That meant a lot to this mom who was uncomfortable in a newish environment with a kid who was pining for home (New Orleans) and still adjusting to a school day structure and approach to teaching and learning that were very different from the Montessori curriculum of his previous experience.

When I blogged about the fifth grade African masks a few months ago, I mentioned there was so much more art to see–much more than I can cover in a couple of blog posts.  But in honor of Mrs. Crarey’s retirement and the tremendous gift she has been to the school, this post focuses on her group’s art fair exhibit.

Mrs. Crarey approaches art purposefully.  She typically has her students complete art projects that connect to a lesson. When my son was in her class, the students drew and learned about owls, West African-style dwellings, jewelry, and women’s attire, geckos, dinosaurs, which I blogged about three and a half years ago, Dr. Seuss, and so much more.  I’m going to miss taking a walk down to her classroom and taking a peek at her students’ masterpieces.

In addition to other art pieces, the class created quilt blocks. After reading Bettye Stroud’s The Patchwork Quilt: A Quilt Map to Freedom, reading about the Underground Railroad, viewing and studying maps of the “slave states” and “free states,” students selected a quilt pattern to draw and color.

“Freedom Quilt”

According to some studies, the quilts played an important role in helping enslaved persons make their way to freedom.  Each quilt piece held significant meaning and provided directions and warnings. Although there have been verbal statements from descendants of enslaved persons regarding the quilt code, there has been no physical proof.

Take a look at the children’s quilt pieces [click an image for a closer look]:

Follow the link to find out what each of the patterns mean: Freedom Quilt Codes.

Farewell, Mrs. Crarey…We’re not sure how we’ll survive the coming years without running into you for our quick chats, but we wish you well on your journey.  Thank you for the fond memories, for your generous spirit, and your heart of gold.

Much love…XOXOX

Mrs. Crarey and My Little One, December 2013

A teacher takes a hand, opens a mind, and touches a heart.