I attended a local prayer breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. last Saturday (Jan. 15). It was a fine, enjoyable and inspiring event, attended by a few hundred people from a variety of church and ethnic backgrounds, including a healthy representation of civic and church leaders. A couple of choirs sang and a couple of local young African-American leaders spoke.
One of the first things the gathering did was sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” described as the “African-American National Anthem.” But I have to confess that as I stood there singing, I felt bothered by the idea of an “alternative” national anthem.
The notion of “hyphenated Americans” has always bothered me. E pluribus unum: I’m a fan. (I’ve got Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson on my side, for whatever that’s worth.) But there I was, singing an alternative anthem. I appreciated the spirit and intent of the breakfast, and so I wasn’t thinking “Bah, humbug.” But I wasn’t thinking, “Hip-hip-hooray!” either. Wasn’t the kind of separation this song implied exactly opposite of what the good Dr. King preached?
But when I stopped mentally stroking my chin and wagging my finger long enough to focus on the words, a few lights turned on.
For instance: If someone wanted to compare this “anthem” and the official American national anthem, it would be a religious slam dunk for “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is wall-to-wall biblical allusions and expressions of faith in a God who promised to redeem captives. “The Star-Spangled Banner,” by contrast, describes a battle scene. That difference alone should give folks a moment’s pause. If we want to think of the U.S. as a Christian, peace-loving nation, we couldn’t guess that from our national anthem. Taken at face value, the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice” are much more biblical and universal.
But there’s more to songs than lyrics, of course. These anthems carry almost two centuries of emotional and symbolic baggage. “Lift Every Voice,” written at the start of the 20th century, spoke specifically about the black experience in the U.S., less than a generation after slavery had been abolished. So when I sing or hear that song, I hear it differently than someone who can trace his or her family back to a slave or to a lynching victim or to a Selma marcher. That history doesn’t make the song a good candidate for an actual national anthem. Even so, it’s healthy for me to hear it and sing it. It’s a song that is deeply rooted in is piece of American history that is both shameful and noble.
I still wish it weren’t nicknamed a “national anthem” — we have only one of those. On the other hand, African-Americans and other minorities were treated as a separate nation within our borders for so long, I shouldn’t be too harsh and not at all surprised. History is hard to escape.
Here’s the first stanza; you can click here to read all the lyrics.
“Lift every voice and sing,
‘Til 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 ’til victory is won.”
The video is not of our prayer breakfast. (We sang well, but nothing like that.) It’s the Metropolitan Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., Jan. 18, 2009.