Guest Columnist

The history and importance of the Negro national anthem

Attendees sing
Attendees sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at the Juneteenth celebration at the Iowa Memorial Union Black Box Theatre on Saturday, June 11, 2011. (Liz Martin/SourceMedia Group News)

As a child, I wondered why as black people we had the Negro national anthem.

“Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;

Let our rejoicing rise, High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.”

In 1900, James Johnson in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday first wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” as a poem and it was then put to music by his brother John Johnson in 1905. The newly formed hymn gained popularity quickly for its story of resilience and in 1919 was coined the Negro national anthem by the NAACP. As a piece of literature, the anthem, is wise. It retells of the past and acknowledges the progress that has been made as encouragement for future gains in the fight for true equality. The message of hardships and grit has attracted broad appeal with choirs across the globe. The Anthem continues to be a source of pride and truth as it speaks to the vast injustices’ that the African American community has gone through and continues to face.

It’s adaptation as an anthem for black America can often be linked to the bitter reality of our countries anthem. The dedication to Old Glory written by Francis Scott Key, the “Star Spangled Banner” in 1814, was pinned at a time when my ancestors were still enduring slavery. To take it a step further, in the third verse, Key’s lyrics reinforce the exclusion, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.” While some may argue the intent of this text, the fact is, during this time in America the flag represented the independence of white Americans from the tyranny of Europe and not the torture of slaves at the hands of their masters.

“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.”

The Negro national anthem exists to remind us of the progress we’ve made in all aspects of our civilization. In one form or another, it was intended to be all of our story, but also a constant nudge that we must continue to push forward and not become satisfied with where we are now.

“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has brought us thus far on the way; Thou who hast 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.”

I have learned my history — our history — as well as the significance of the day the first African slave was imported to this land in 1619, to the adoption of this anthem in 1919 and over 100 years later, it’s message still true.

RasTafari Smith of Waterloo represents District 62 in the Iowa House of Representatives.

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