January 19, 2015
In honor of Martin Luther King Day, take some time to listen to the Grace Baptist Church Cathedral Choir of Mt. Vernon, NY, as they sing “Lift Every Voice,” sometimes called the Black national anthem. (The video includes the lyrics against a backdrop of visuals from the Civil Rights Movement.)
As one example of how much the song has meant in so many lives, Maya Angelou, who died this past year, has written about a special day when the song’s words came alive to her. Even though she had sung It innumerable times throughout her childhood, she said she had never really “heard” the words. But that day, she did—deep in her heart. The impact was profound. (Angelou tells the story in chapter 23 of her autobiographical book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.)
She was 12 years old, graduating from the eighth grade of a southern segregated school, and she had just endured listening to a pompous guest speaker, a white man who was running for political office. He seemed oblivious to the effect his words were having, shattering any dreams and aspirations his African American audience might have had.
“The white kids were going to have a chance to become Galileos and Madame Curies and Edisons and Gauguins, and our boys (the girls wouldn’t even be in on it) would try to be Jesse Owenses and Joe Louises,” young Maya observed as she listened to the speaker’s comments and examples. She knew that sports figures were indeed important heroes, but she wondered what right school officials had to decide these should be the only heroes held up to inspire Black children. She felt that the effort and energy she and her classmates had poured into their schoolwork, leading up to this eagerly anticipated graduation ceremony, apparently amounted to nothing. “We were maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen, and anything higher that we aspired to was farcical and presumptuous,” she wrote.
And then a young student, who followed the other speaker— who had immediately left the building at the end of his condescending speech— courageously gave the valedictory address on “To Be or Not to Be.” The student ended his talk by turning to the graduation class behind him and started to sing: “Lift every voice and sing. . . .” It was then that Maya Angelou said she really heard all the words for the first time. Everyone joined in the singing. No longer was the atmosphere one of defeat and discouragement. The atmosphere changed to one of strength and triumph and hope. She could take pride in who she was, in who her people were.
“Oh, Black known and unknown poets,” Angelou wrote in her autobiography, as she recalled that day, “How often have your auctioned pains sustained us?” She asserted that African American people survive “in exact relationship to the dedication of our poets,” and by that term she was including “preachers, musicians and blues singers.”
Related: The Poetry Foundation website includes James Weldon Johnson’s own recounting of the song’s origin in 1900.