Opinion: Please stop dismissing the ‘Black national anthem’
Controversy has arisen again regarding the upcoming performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that is scheduled for Super Bowl 58. During last year’s game, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also referred to as the “Black national anthem,” was sung by Sheryl Lee Ralph, affectionately known to “Abbot Elementary” fans as “Miss Barbara.” Grammy Award-winning artist Andra Day will sing it before a packed and star-studded Allegiant Stadium in Paradise, Nevada. The other highly anticipated pregame selections of the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” will be sung by Reba McEntire and Post Malone respectively.
This is the fourth consecutive year that a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” will be showcased at the Super Bowl, and the mainstream and social media debates are revving up before the San Francisco 49ers and Kansas City Chiefs strap on their helmets to take the field. The arguments mainly from the conservative side are that the “Black national anthem” does more to divide us rather than unite us as a nation. Many Super Bowl tweets on X last year were full of comments declaring that America only has “ONE NATIONAL ANTHEM” and that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” seems “racist and divisive.” Tweets from obviously liberal-leaning individuals claimed that those who had a problem with the song were the reason it was being sung. I don’t see how anyone who has taken the time to read the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” could assert that this hymn, which is the poetic format that James Weldon Johnson used to compose it in 1900, is racist.
There is nothing in the lyrics affirming Black superiority over any racial group; rather, the song is a proclamation of confidence and trust in God not to get discouraged and tired along the way in fighting for freedom. For example, in the first verse Johnson speaks of “harmonies of Liberty,” pointing out what the “dark past has taught us” and being filled with “the hope that the present has brought us.” In the third verse, Johnson begins with “God of our weary years/God of our silent tears/Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way.” He continues this faithful expression, writing, “Thou who hast by Thy might/Led us into the light/Keep us forever in the path, we pray.” These are definitely not words of strife and hostility. They do not urge racial separation or convey anger and hatred toward America, which was barely two decades into Jim Crow era segregation during this time.
From a historical context, we have to understand why the NAACP adopted “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as its official song in 1919. African Americans had only been legally free for 54 years and were not fully integrated into our country’s cultural, social and economic institutions. The Ku Klux Klan had rebounded four years earlier near Atlanta with a determination to keep Blacks subjugated in the South. Everything was separate and immensely unequal. It is notable that Johnson, who was a civil rights activist and served as the NAACP’s executive secretary for a decade, had not given up on America’s potential and ideals. In the second verse of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Johnson wrote that African Americans had come “to the place for which [their] fathers sighed.” That “place” is obviously much better in 2024 than it was in 1919. I certainly am grateful to God to be living in that better “place” today, and the faith that Johnson articulated reflects how many African Americans found divine strength not to let roots of bitterness from past injustices consume them.
When thinking about how influential sports are in bringing us together as a country, it’s sad that these polarizing debates are ongoing. Including “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at the Super Bowl is basically just another lyrical expression of our collective national history, and combining it with the national anthem and “America the Beautiful” tells a great story through song. We need to listen more attentively to this story that represents all of us instead of fueling damaging racial and partisan divisions.
— Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University’s Lima campus.