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Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Narrative of the Liberation Song

By: KRF


Students, faculty, and staff wildly file into Epps Gymnasium. They search for their friends, colleagues or coworkers to sit and converse with for the duration of the next two hours until the orator chimes in to break the noise. It is Clark Atlanta University's 31st Convocation. The students, faculty, and staff all wait patiently as the program starts. The audience is pegged to stand for the choirs next three selections: the opening hymn and the alma mater-- which the choir receive little to no “call and response.” Though, when the third selection --“Lift Every Voice and Sing”-- is played, the crowd sounds in unison as though church is now in session. Only the first verse is sung, but the wave of black folks sound with bombastic rhetoric --as though their spirits hailed them to empathize with the lyricism. During an HBCU convocation this is played, during Black history month this is played, during any function celebrating the legacy of black people —this song is played. Despite the functions being celebratory of black history --the question of ‘why do we play this song?’ is never piqued. It is seemingly though that all the black Americans who sing along loudly and boldly, blindly recite the words to follow the narrative given to them. It is almost as if they rejoice in the narrative of the song celebrating the humanity of black people. Or the narrative of James Weldon Johnson writing this poem for the man who dismantled the slavery institution. The possibilities as to why this song is heavily embraced can go on, but the underlying factor is that black people have been miseducated on the narrative of the anthem that is socially praised in the black community. The African-American community has been made to believe that this song resonates as a liberation anthem, when in reality —it mocks the reality of modern day slavery black Americans are still facing. Labeling “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the negro national anthem mocks the pedagogy of African-Americans about their independence, which thus calls into question whether this song should be the liberation anthem for black people?

To begin, the premise of this paper is the narrative behind the song/ poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and the center question is the justification of why it should be Black people’s liberation song. James Weldon Johnson wrote “Lift every Voice and Sing” initially as a poem in 1900, and it was later set to music by Johnson’s brother in 1905 (Gates). The poem was performed first as part of a celebration for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday (Gates). It is significant for the poem to first be performed for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, due to Lincoln being known for setting the slaves free. Then in 1919, the song was indoctrinated as the Negro National Anthem by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), because the song voiced a cry of liberation of African-American people and transcending hardships (Gates). Claudette Lindsay-Habermann explains in her article, “Till Victory is Won: The Staying Power of Lift Every Voice and Sing,” how for this reason, this liberation song has been catching global waves in the African-American community and reminding African-Americans to unify for one cause. She says this song has been highlighted amongst many performances by African-American musical artists, who use the song to pay tribute to the trials Black people face saying, “Motown's Kim Weston sang it to nearly 100,000 people at the historic Wattstax concert in 1972. In 1990, singer Melba Moore released an all-star version that included Anita Baker, Stevie Wonder. . .Gladys Knight and Bebe Winans added their own rendition in 2012. . .Beyoncé sang it at Coachella, highlighting black culture to a largely white audience” (Lindsay- Habermann). Despite the wave of tributes the song has cultivated throughout the years for African-Americans by African-Americans, the history of whom this song was initially dedicated to is problematic.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing,” is dedicated to Abraham Lincoln who is known for abolishing slavery and drafting the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves. In modern day society, it is familiar for people to dwell on the idea of a post-racial society, but most of those citizens are unaware of the staggering facts. Such as the Thirteenth Amendment ratified by Abraham Lincoln December 6, 1865 states, “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” This first section of the Amendment states that slavery nor indentured servitude shall not be permitted within the United States territory, unless for a punishment of a crime that that person is convicted of. The exception clause in the middle of the Thirteenth Amendment calls for an eyebrow raise as to what is implied by it, but the historical facts stemming from this clause causes the black American to question whether or not Lincoln actually did abolish slavery.

The implication of the exception clause in the Thirteenth Amendment is highly questionable, but the facts of why it is present is not dismissable. Firstly, the character of Abraham Lincoln does not represent a man who was an abolitionist. Although Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment with the intentions to end slavery in the south, he was not fully supportive of the ending of enslavement nor the equality of blacks and whites. In the article “5 Things You didn’t Know About Abraham Lincoln” by Sarah Pruitt, she explores lifetime facts about Abraham Lincoln with his views on slavery and equality being two of the first facts. In her first section she states that Lincoln was not an abolitionist saying,


. . .in the fall of 1854, Lincoln presented more clearly than ever his moral,

legal and economic opposition to slavery—and then admitted he didn’t know exactly what should be done about it within the current political system.

Abolitionists, by contrast, knew exactly what should be done about it: Slavery should be immediately abolished, and freed slaves should be incorporated as equal members of society. (Pruitt)

Pruitt is stating in this quote how Lincoln was morally conscious of the fallacies in the slavery institution, but was unsure of how to move about correcting the wrongs of the institution possibly in the favor of everyone. But, Pruitt is also saying how he would not be an abolitionist because if he did feel guilty about the institution of slavery, than he would know exactly what to do to rid the country of the immoral sin. To continue, Pruitt also proves what a true abolitionist thinks like by using William Lloyd Garrison as an example of what a true abolitionist would think and act like stating, “Leading abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution “a covenant with death and an agreement with Hell,” and went so far as to burn a copy at a Massachusetts rally in 1854”’ to further prove her point about how Lincoln condoned the institution of slavery (Pruitt). In addition, Pruitt further proves her point about Lincoln’s attitude towards enslavement when she pulls a debate between Lincoln’s U.S. Senate opponent, Stephen Douglas, who accuses Lincoln of being supportive of “negro equality where Lincoln makes his opposition clear saying, “I will say then that I am not, nor ever have been, in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races” (Pruitt), and then she goes on to explain how he opposed Black people having the right to vote, serve on juries, and have interracial relationships with white people. Though, he did believe that Black people had the right to enjoy the fruits of their labor just as white people; but slavery did not entail this which is what he believed made slavery morally wrong. In addition to Pruitt’s facts regarding Lincoln, Lincoln also voiced why he thought slavery was justifiable based on skin complexion in relation to intellect in the article “Lincoln on Slavery.” On July 1, 1854, Lincoln encountered questions regarding his views on enslavement, and he would give his most candid attitude towards the institution. In one section of the article, he is justifying why slavery is permissible due to skin color equating wits saying, “If A. can prove, however conclusively, that he may, of right, enslave B. -- why may not B. snatch the same argument, and prove equally, that he may enslave A?-/ You say A. is white, and B. is black. It is color, then; the lighter, having the right to enslave the darker? Take care. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with a fairer skin than your own./ You do not mean color exactly?--You mean the whites are intellectually the superiors of the blacks, and, therefore have the right to enslave them? Take care again. By this rule, you are to be slave to the first man you meet, with an intellect superior to your own” (“Lincoln on Slavery”). Lincoln is addressing the different arguments posed to him about slavery, and rationalizing why it is justifiable. He uses the examples of intellect being based on color to articulate why whites are more superior in intellect because their skin is more fair.

With this information, the question still remains of why did James Weldon Johnson dedicate this song of empowerment, surmounting adversity, and hope for a better future to a man who did not see Blacks and whites as equal? Why does the African-American community deitize a man who did not favor the equality of Blacks and whites, and was pushed to end slavery due to the need to unify the United States? The answer possibly lies in the education of African-Americans over the Westernized-narrative they were given regarding Abraham Lincoln and his want to abolish slavery. In a survey, twenty-six people ranging from ages eighteen to sixty-nine took a poll to test how much they knew about the history of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and why they believed it should be the Negro National Anthem. The majority of the voters considered themselves Black/ African-American, and only one person was white, but the staggering overwhelming population did consider “Lift Every Voice and Sing” the Negro National Anthem; only three people said they did not consider the song the Negro National Anthem. When asked if they knew the full first stanza, only nineteen voters said yes, and when asked who wrote the poem, twenty-one voters said James Weldon Johnson. Three people said W.E.B DuBois wrote it, and two people said that Francis Scott Key wrote it as well as Rudyard Kipling. But, when asked who was it written for almost half the voters said W. E. B. DuBois, and fifteen voters said Abraham Lincoln. Some of the results are skewed because some voters texted and said they had to Google the answers to know the answers to the questions, when the point of the survey was to test how much knowledge one had about “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The most interesting results came from the short responses on why the people thought “Lift Every Voice and Sing” should be the Negro National Anthem.

The last question of the survey was “Why do you think “Lift Every Voice and Sing” should be the Negro National Anthem?”’ Some of the responses were pretty funny such as “because we black,” which was one of the less than serious responses—unless that person genuinely thought “because we’re black” is justification for liking this song. Other responses which were along the lines of what I expected were, “It’s a reminder to how strong we are as a people,” “it speaks on our struggle,” and even “it was written acknowledging people of color.” Their were a combination of responses that ranged from severity, to just plain evasive such as, “the lyrics,” “no,” “that’s what it’s called,” “idk it just is,” and even “nice little tune.” These responses were lacking in depth of how the song was significant to being the Negro National Anthem. Though, two responses stuck at the most which were, “Because that’s what I was taught,” and “I think because it was written by James Weldon Johnson this creates the perception that this song was meant for black people. If another suitable anthem is created, I’m inclined to think about choosing that one.” The first one was significant because it addresses the pedagogy of the Westernized canon. Black people were taught to embrace this song, just because it is representative of them. This was a response which was most candid, and fit the narrative of what almost every Black person is told to do in regards to this song. The second response also concurs the first because of the underlying honesty of how Black people are supposed to accept the narrative given to them. The responder stated, “Because it was written by James Weldon Johnson this creates the perception that this song was meant for black people. . .” which calls into question whether James Weldon Johnson should be the one persecuted for dedicating such a song of empowerment to a man who did not care for the African-American community? From the results, it seemed that almost all the responders were given the same narrative about the song being drilled into their heads at youth, forced to rejoice with the song not because they were cognizant of the content of the song --but because they were pegged to do so by their school systems and church affiliations. Though still, no responders surfaced the question on why it was dedicated to Abraham Lincoln.

Questions still remain regarding to what purpose does the song hold for the Black community if the premise of the narrative behind it is questionable. Does the song mock the modern day enslavement Black Americans are still facing under Lincoln’s exception clause? Or even does the premise of the narrative demean the powerful lyrics written by James Weldon Johnson regarding Black Americans’ liberation? If the song were dedicated to W.E.B. DuBois, David Walker, or even solely the entire Black community to uplift and empower the fight for freedom–then the substance of the song would not be questionable. But, it is still in memorial of Abraham Lincoln and the accomplishments he has made for the black community in ending enslavement nationwide.

The exception clause in the Thirteenth Amendment is merely a small fragment sandwiched between the two clauses which would duly abolish slavery, but that small clause has caused a generational path of incarceration of Black people. In Abigail Parkiss’ essay, “Abraham Lincoln as Constitutional Radical: The 13th Amendment,” she praises the radicalism of Abraham Lincoln for abolishing slavery in America during a time slavery was the primary commodity for southerners. At the end of her essay she poses questions regarding the current significance of the Thirteenth Amendment saying,

Despite its significance in American history, the Thirteenth Amendment is not one of the more frequently invoked parts of our Constitution today. Now that slavery is a part of our past, the Amendment’s current relevance is subject to debate. Does it govern the fairness of modern labor practices? Does it empower Congress to pass broad-ranging civil rights laws? Whatever the outcome of those debates, though, the Thirteenth Amendment deserves recognition as an historic and solemn promise that slavery will never again exist in the United States. (Parkiss)

The initial questions Parkiss poses are highly significant due to them being unanswered in modern day politics. The Thirteenth Amendment’s relevance then protected enslavement of people committed of a crime which it still does till today with inmates who perform free labor in jail. In the article, “Prison Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment,” the exception clause is discussed in relation to how the abolishment of slavery left a void in the Southern labor market. Due to the gap in economic resources, the criminal justice system began to take advantage of the exception clause by legalizing the involuntary servitude of Black Americans. The pressing issues to continue free labor was heightened, and the only way to do so was to find massive numbers of individuals guilty of crimes. After the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendment, Jim Crow laws were placed in order to, “arrest and imprison large numbers of black people,” and even went as far as to, “lease prisoners to private individuals and corporations in a system of convict leasing that resulted in dangerous conditions, abuse, and death” (“Prison Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment”). This shows how the exception clause in the Thirteenth Amendment caused years worth of strife for the African-American to succeed, and vehemently worked to ensure that African-Americans were not guaranteed the same equal rights once convicted of a crime. To further prove the point of incarceration being the modern day enslavement based on the Thirteenth Amendment, “while states profited, prisoners earned no pay and faced inhumane, hazardous, and often deadly work conditions. Thousands of black people were forced into a brutal system that historians have called “worse than slavery” (“Prison Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment”).

Based on the staggering results, the question still remains if this song should be the Negro National Anthem if the person the song is dedicated to did not seal the gap on freeing the enslaved, and instead worked to ensure its future continuation. James Weldon Johnson was more than likely a victim of the educational system as well about the importance of Abraham Lincoln, and although his poem is beautiful in messages regarding hope and prosperity —the substance is diluted when associated with the man who purposefully meant to keep slavery in tact covertly.

In conclusion, I’ve come to the understanding that the narrative of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is simply just that —a narrative that everyone wants to believe in and will listen to others on why they should believe in it. The beauty in the lyrics of the song are powerful, but the history behind it undermines the fight for freedom articulated in the lyrics of the poem. The Black community uses the song as a placeholder to remind oneself of the trials Black people have overcome, and are still surmounting —which clashes with the ideologies of whom the song was dedicated to. All in all, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is a memorialized song for the Black community, and hopefully one day the dedication can solely be addressed to Black people.




Works Cited

“Lincoln on Slavery.” National Parks Service, U.S. Department of the Interior,

www.nps.gov/liho/learn/historyculture/slavery.htm.

Lindsay-Habermann, Claudette. “Till Victory Is Won: The Staying Power Of 'Lift Every Voice

And Sing'.” NPR, NPR, 16 Aug. 2018, www.npr.org

Parkiss, Abigail. “Abraham Lincoln as Constitutional Radical: The 13th Amendment.” National

Constitution Center – Constitutioncenter.org, constitutioncenter.org

“Prison Labor and the Thirteenth Amendment.” Equal Justice Initiative,

eji.org/history-racial-injustice-prison-labor.

Pruitt, Sarah. “5 Things You May Not Know About Lincoln, Slavery and Emancipation.”

History.com, A&E Television Networks, 21 Sept. 2012, www.history.com


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