I once almost made a mistake with this hymn.
It was spring 2011, and a small committee of Unitarian Universalists from four NY Capital Region congregations were planning our third joint service. We had moved to a new venue, which features an historic tracker organ, and we decided to do a hymn sing before the service, featuring the organ. Thus, we were selecting familiar, rousing hymns we thought would sound especially good on the organ, and I suggested this one.
One of the committee members, colleague Viola (Vee) Abbitt, recoiled, feeling some shock that I had cavalierly suggested this hymn be used without context. Vee explained her concerns, namely that this piece is considered the African American National Anthem and is not to be thought of as just another hymn, especially when it would be so casually sung by a predominantly white crowd greeting each other and finding their seats.
Of course, I quickly eliminated it from the list, and later went home to learn more.
I learned that this song, originally written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson and set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson, was sung by a group of young black children at a segreated school in Jacksonville, Florida, to honor Booker T. Washington. It became popular almost immediately, and by 1919, the NAACP dubbed it the African American National Anthem. It is said that this was one of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s favorite hymns.
And thus, we must be careful about using it.
Yes, these powerful lyrics could be sung about, by, and for many today – and yet it is specific enough that we should not consider for a moment adopting it or colonizing it for other needs. I think back to the lesson I learned in seminary, that we cannot make a presumption of sameness or else we run the risk of normalizing events, attitudes, and experiences that are not shared, not universal, not normal.
Resist the urge to use this song for purposes other than talking about racism, Jim Crow, the NAACP, and the incredible, bittersweet, angry yet hopeful expression of resistance that I see reflected by my African American friends and colleagues.
Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring,
ring with the harmonies of liberty;
let our rejoicing rise high as the listening 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 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 thru 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.
Do not colonize this song. Let it shine in the context in which it is intended.
The photo is of John and James Weldon.