The Current Impact of James Weldon Johnson’s, Lift Every Voice and Sing

James Weldon Johnson. National Portrait Gallery

James Weldon Johnson. National Portrait Gallery

Black History Month has been a celebration of excellence. Here at Books, Poetry, Positivity and Purpose, we continue to celebrate artist and leaders whose written words have had a profound impact in our society. Today, we celebrate the leadership and artistry of James Weldon Johnson. Mr. Johnson is best known for writing, Lift Every Voice and Sing, commonly referred to as the Black National Anthem. However, he was also an attorney, civil rights leader, diplomat and a leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Poetry lovers know that Lift Every Voice and Sing was written as a poem and music was added by his brother, James Rosamond Johnson. Like most impactful poems, it tells a powerful, heartfelt story that is meaningful to readers. He has been recognized for the poetry books, Fifty Years and Other Poems, The Book of American Negro Poetry, God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse, and Saint Peter Relates an Incident: Selected Poems.

Lift Every Voice and Sing has had a significant impact in our culture. We are all familiar with the joyful first verse, which celebrates freedom from slavery and oppression. The song is now mainstream, most recently performed by Beyonce at Coachella, but it has long had a significant presence in black churches, schools and gatherings. It was also performed as a poem as part of a celebration for Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. Personally, the third verse of the poem is the one that has always pulled at my soul. “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears” reminds us that even in our darkest places, God is there, walking with us, comforting us, carrying us and leaving footprints for us to follow. For those of us who believe in a higher power, we know that prayer combined with action still works, even in the struggles of today. If our ancestors can overcome slavery, Jim Crow laws, and denial of basic human rights, we certainly can press on through our current challenges personally, professionally and politically by staying true to what we value — God, family, human rights globally, health and safety for all, protecting the environment, protecting our children, and valuing everyone’s humanity.

James Weldon Johnson’s poem focused on the lives of people of African Descent because of the systemic oppression that was faced when the poem was written and unfortunately, still continues. Black lives mattered in 1900 when this poem was written and it matters now as we struggle to maintain all the progress that in 1900 gave Mr. Johnson reason to be hopeful. We are faced with so many civil rights challenges, old and new; there are still weary years, still silent tears, especially from mothers of boys of color. We have to keep challenging actions that do not represent our best selves so that we can keep moving towards a more just world. We want our children to sing Lift Every Voice and Sing with a joyful heart, understanding the struggles of the past but also knowing that a bright future awaits.

Originally published on Medium.

(Author: Janet Autherine. IG@JanetAutherine. Credit PBS, Wikipedia and family of James Weldon Johnson. Photo credit: National Portrait Gallery)

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