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What Is the "Negro National Anthem"?

On January 20, 2009, the Rev. Joseph Lowery paraphrased and in places recited the lyrics of an African-American folk song informally known as the “Negro National Anthem” in his benediction at President Obama’s inauguration.  To a large portion of the audience, the significance of the allusion was lost.  Some writers like Jill Nelson criticized the vastly-white media for failing instantly to realize, acknowledge, and appreciate the allusion.

The Negro National Anthem (aka: Black National Anthem) has deep roots in American history.  “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as it is formally known, was penned by James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson in 1900 to “commemorate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday” and “to commemorate President Lincoln’s action [of] freeing slaves.”  One of its songwriters, James Weldon Johnson, was a prominent intellectual and trailblazer.  A writer during the Black Renaissance, he was the first African-American to pass the bar exam in the state of Florida.  Johnson served as the NAACP’s executive secretary for a decade as well. The song soon was heard in largely African-American churches and gatherings across the nation.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was heard on the Obama campaign trails as far back as early 2008.  Some supporters have used it in public support of the man who now is in history books as the first African-American President of the United States.

Yet, many Americans failed to make the connection initially on Inauguration Day.  While “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was even sung by the Morgan State University Choir on the Baltimore stage of Obama’s highly-publicized pre-Inauguration train trip, it was not largely discussed in the mainstream media in the days leading up to Inauguration Day. When Lowery made his way to the microphone with all the cameras rolling, he began the benediction with a stanza verbatim from “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou, who has brought us thus far along the way,
Thou, who has by Thy might
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray…
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.  

Lowery's virtual recitation of the Anthem won darts as well as laurels.  As one critic wrote: “Here we go again, another black ‘reverend’ living in the past, sowing seeds of racism with his reference to ‘when the white will do what is right’… Another glittering display of no class from a leftist.  Oh, I guess it is impossible for the ‘reverend’ to be racist…. He’s black.”

During the 2008 campaign the Anthem was briefly the subject of news stories when jazz performer Rene Marie opened a Denver public event by singing the words of the old song to the tune of the "Star-Spangled Banner." Officials were taken aback. The mayor of Denver, who was presiding, had expected her to perform the national anthem, not the black national anthem. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic Party leader who was expecting to be nominated in Denver the following month, told reporters she should have stuck to the "Star-Spangled Banner."

While most in the audience apparently did not catch the significance of the switch, Denver City Council President Michael Hancock, an African-American, did:

The Negro National Anthem is very sacred to African Americans. I grew up knowing that song, singing it at African American events, MLK marade, NAACP events .... It says something about our heritage, the history of African Americans, and to the pain and the triumphs and opportunities and challenges in our country. It is an important song and is sacred to me.

Hancock was angered by the switch. "As an African American," he told the press, "I can tell you it was inappropriate for her to sing it. That is not what she was asked to do." But other blacks defended the singer's decision.   As one blogger wrote: “Look at the words of the Black National Anthem.  There is nothing about it that is un-American or unpatriotic.  Look at your negative reaction [of the singing of it] – if you have one.  It might speak more to your own insecurity and fears of loss.”  Another blogger opined: “I’m a 23 yr old black man and I can rember [sic] singing the negro anthem as well. If you ask me its [sic] a lot better than the regular anthem!”  Others, siding with Obama and Hancock, objected: “This is ridiculous! There is NO substitute for the national anthem and what this woman did was rude and in poor taste. There should be no such thing as a ‘black’ national anthem.  We’re all Americans.”  One blogger confessed: “I didn’t realize there was a ‘Black National Anthem’ but apparently there is.”

By the time of Obama's inauguration the Denver controversy had long been forgotten. When Marian Wright Edelman heard Lowery cite the Anthem's lines they "made my deepest heartstrings throb":

For all of us raised on those beloved words, the symbolism was overwhelming. For over a hundred years, every time it has been sung in a church hall, school auditorium or community meeting, it has enabled us black folks to sing our own story about our faith in and struggle to make America's promise real. ... For now, as part of the blessing of our nation and our new young, brilliant president who reflects the DNA of our nation and globe, the Negro National Anthem has become – at long last – part of the larger American hymn.

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