Pastor Tia’s Devotion for July 29, 2020:
Before Corona, a time that feels like ages ago, I used to sing at the Oakland Naturalizations with TOSCA. A choir of dedicated singers and proud Americans – and me, the Immigrant. Americans, who love their country and want it to be true to its values: A place of freedom and opportunity for all. One way to show that for them is to welcome new citizens into this country.
We always sang the same set of music on stage of the beautiful Paramount Theater. Great music like “You’re a grand old flag” and “This land is my land”. And “Lift ev’ry voice and sing”. I love this song. I love its dramatic melody and its hopeful lyrics. Of course, we only sang the first verse of it. The Black National Anthem.
When the choir first introduced this song, apparently there was quite some opposition to it. Because this song is not just a beautiful song. It’s a statement to honor Black lives. The choir argued that this song is not only used politically, but also religiously. It’s part of 39 hymnals all across the denominations. In 1978 it was included in the Lutheran Book of Worship.
For the last couple of weeks I have been thinking of singing this hymn during our worship. On August 16th we will. And then I read “Dear Church” by Lenny Duncan again. There he writes about how we think that singing “Lift ev’ry voice and sing” once or twice a year in our churches makes us an anti-racist place. He writes: “If you are reading this and you have sung that hymn at your church and your pastor didn’t take the time to teach you that [history] first, that’s just one example of the ways our church has failed to properly contextualize our symbols and liturgies.”
I was so close to being complicit. I was so close to failing you. Of course, I don’t know if any of your pastors ever took the time to talk about this song. Maybe you have heard it a hundred times and I am actually the only ignorant here. That’s totally possible. But just like we remember so many things throughout our liturgy over and over again, just like we tell the same old stories over and over again, this song’s history needs to be remembered. So, here we go.
A prayer of thanksgiving for faithfulness and freedom, the imagery evokes the biblical Exodus from slavery to the freedom of the “promised land.”
“Black communities across the globe continue to be vulnerable in very unique and unsettling ways,” Redmond says. “To sing this song is to revive that past — but also to recognize, as the lyrics of the song reveal, that there is a hopeful future that might come of it.”, explains Shana Redmond, a professor at UCLA who studies music, race, and politics and author of the book Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora.
The song was first performed in 1900, at a segregated school in Jacksonville, Fla., by a group of 500 children celebrating President Lincoln’s birthday. Their school’s director James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938) was an American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist. His brother John set the poem to music.
James was also a leader of the NAACP, where he began working in 1917. From 1920 to 1930 he was their executive secretary, effectively the operating officer. He was appointed under President Theodore Roosevelt as US consul in Venezuela and Nicaragua for most of the period from 1906 to 1913. In 1934 he became the first African-American professor to be hired at New York University. Later in life he served as a professor of creative literature and writing at Fisk University, a historically black university.
The first verse opens with a command to optimism, praise and freedom. The strong faith in a better future is rooted in a past that didn’t leave any space for hopes and yet hope was all that was left to fight despair.
Lift ev’ry voice and sing
‘Til 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 ’til victory is won
In the second verse we are reminded to never forget the suffering and obstacles of the past. We should never “get over it”. Because history shapes us and history tends to repeat itself if we start forgetting. As Christians we are very familiar with the idea that history shapes the present. What happened over 2000 years ago and lasted 33 years, still is the main story we tell: How a man of color died to save us from our sin. The sin to pretend to be better than others, even better than God. And we still today find hope and reassurance in words of the Old Testament, seeing how God saved his people and freed them from slavery and injustice. That’s the God we trust in.
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 through the blood of the slaughtered
Out from the gloomy past
‘Til now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast
And the final stanza is about the challenges of the future. They are to be met with perseverance and courage. And they can be met with perseverance and courage because of a deep trust in God. Deeper than the way too many weary years. Deeper than the ocean of silent tears, there is this trust that the path is lead by God towards a bright future.
God of our weary years
God of our silent tears
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way
Thou who has 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
Written at a pivotal time, when Jim Crow was replacing slavery after a short time of restauration and hopefulness, African-Americans were searching for an identity. Two key events led to its being named the Negro National Anthem: In 1905, Booker T. Washington, the leading voice of the former slaves and their descendants at that time, endorsed it, and in 1919, it became the official song of the NAACP.
“It spoke to the history of the dark journey of African-Americans,” says current NAACP president Derrick Johnson, “and for that matter many Africans in the diaspora [who] struggled through to get to a place of hope.”
“Even during days of segregation,” Timothy Askew, an English professor at Clark Atlanta University and scholar of the song’s history says, “there were Southern white churches … who wrote to James Weldon Johnson and who said, ‘We are singing that song you called the black national anthem.’ People in Japan, South America, people around the world, particularly during the ’30s and ’40s, were singing this song.”
The song is now widely performed — at churches, schools, and graduation ceremonies and beyond.
“It allows us to acknowledge all of the brutalities and inhumanities and dispossession that came with enslavement, that came with Jim Crow, that comes still today with disenfranchisement, police brutality, dispossession of education and resources,” Shana Redmond says. “It continues to announce that we see this brighter future, that we believe that something will change.” 
I already liked the song before I knew its history. Tonight, I learned about its heritage. Now, I love this song. It reminds us that there is work to do. 500 kids sang this song 120 years ago. Hoping that they were about to enter the bright future of true equity. Today, Black Americans still sing this song, still hoping for that future. How wonderful would it be to one day sing this song and say: “Remember, back then, when people still had to fight for equity? Thank God, we don’t have to do that anymore.” We’ve got a long way to come.
And now: Listen to the song and lift ev’ry voice and sing along! Your Pastor Tia!
 Lenny Duncan, Dear Church. A love letter from a Black preacher to the whitest denomination in the U.S., page 66.
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