"Lift Every Voice and Sing" - Exploring African American History through Art
Last updated: January 19, 2024, at 2:09 p.m. PT
Originally published: January 19, 2024, at 1:58 p.m. PT
By Loria Yeadon
President & CEO, YMCA of Greater Seattle
On January 15, our community members and staff gathered at the Downtown Seattle YMCA for a presentation on the Black National Anthem, "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Longstanding members of the Y Service Club, Robert Sims and Stanton Brown, led us through a thought-provoking session that delved into the history, meaning, and cultural impact of this anthem.
The Origins and Significance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing"
"Often referred to as 'The Black National Anthem,' 'Lift Every Voice and Sing' was a hymn written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, composed the music for the lyrics," as stated by the NAACP. The origins of this powerful anthem trace back to a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where James Weldon Johnson served as principal. The song's debut in public in Jacksonville to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln's birthday marked the beginning of its historical journey.
CNN's exploration of the hymn emphasizes its role as a history lesson, rallying cry, and a pledge of unity. The Johnson brothers, James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson envisioned artistic and cultural excellence as crucial to Black advancement in America. Their collaboration resulted in a hymn that has become an ever-present refrain in the fight for equality and justice.
The significance of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" goes beyond being an anthem; the stories conveyed through this song and its lyrics, performances, and other forms of expressive art can forge meaningful connections among people with a shared lived experience and hope for a better tomorrow.
Exploring the Symbolism of Augusta Savage's "The Harp" Sculpture
During our gathering, our staff engaged in a meaningful discussion around the lyrics and their representation in Augusta Savage's sculpture, "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as "The Harp." This monumental piece, commissioned for the 1939 New York World's Fair, embodied themes of unity, perseverance through faith, and pride, echoing the sentiments of the hymn itself.
"The Harp" stood at 16 feet in height and was one of only two works by African American artists featured in the exhibition. The sculpture symbolizes our nation’s shared history and the lyrics from “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” with its harp's form defined by a long arm and hand cradling 12 singers in choir robes. The strong stances and folds of their garments were evocative of strings. A young man knelt in the lead, holding sheet music and carrying a pensive expression on his face, uplifted by the beautiful melody and the image the hymn's words recall. Viewers of Savage’s sculpture can see the connections with the lyrics, and there are many interpretations. What do you see when you reflect on the words of the hymn and the visual of “The Harp”?
Here is the first verse:
Lift every voice and sing,
'Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list'ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on 'til victory is won.
Despite its significance, "The Harp" was destroyed when the fair ended (as was common after fair exhibitions at the time). Promotional postcards and documentary photos, like the ones held by institutions like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, serve as a testament to the impact and continued resonance of Savage's tribute to the hymn.
There is Always More to Learn
This experience serves as a reminder that our commitment to learning and understanding our shared history is essential. Black History Month is just around the corner. We hope you join us in celebrating, learning, and reflecting on the remarkable contributions of African Americans throughout history. Also, please participate in local events, including our screening of “Stamped from the Beginning” at the Downtown Seattle YMCA on February 21. Together, we can honor the strength we gain through unity.