UPDATED: 8:40 a.m. ET, Feb. 12, 2021:
While the “Star Spangled Banner,” America’s national anthem, has been sung for nearly two centuries, many African Americans throughout the years have sung a different tune.
“Lift Every Every Voice And Sing,” a poem written by literary pioneer James Weldon Johnson, is often dubbed “The Black National Anthem.” The poem was originally performed in honor of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday on February 12, 1900, and was later set to music in 1905 by Johnson’s brother John Rosamond.
For many African Americans, singing the song was their way of showing patriotism and hope for the future, considering the plight of racism they greatly faced. Deep symbolism was found in its lyrics, allowing African-Americans to subtly speak against racial bigotry. It is heavily performed at predominately African-American venues, especially in Black churches across the nation.
In 1990, singer Melba Moore released a modern rendition of the song, which she recorded along with others including recording artists Anita Baker, Stephanie Mills, Dionne Warwick, Bobby Brown, Stevie Wonder, Jeffrey Osborne, Howard Hewett BeBe & CeCe and The Clark Sisters.
Today the song is an integral piece of Black patriotism.
It’s also gained increasing relevance in recent months amid a purported racial reckoning as the U.S. takes slow steps to address inequalities facing Black people in all walks of life.
As a candidate, President Joe Biden named his plan for Black America the “Lift Every Voice” plan addresses some of the stereotypical topics associated with Black people, like gun violence and criminal justice. But it also sets aside funding for issues stemming from the disproportionate effect that COVID-19 has had on Black people, including the shuttering of Black-owned businesses.
Conversely, Biden ally and South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn even went so far as to suggest that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” should become America’s national hymn in an effort to heal racial wounds. But writer Anoa Changa suggested such a move could ultimately betray the true and original intentions of the song.
“Clyburn’s suggestion isn’t about what is better for Black people; it’s about what will make whiteness comfortable,” Changa wrote in response to Clyburn’s proposal last month. “Leaders should be using this moment to unequivocally stand firm against the rise of fascism and white nationalist violence coupled with agenda-setting to help uplift communities across the country.”
Below is a video of John Legend performing his rendition of “Lift Every Voice And Sing” during the virtual commencement exercises hosted by Morehouse School of Medicine in May 2020.