Singing an Anthem is Not Enough

Freedom Center Voices

Singing an Anthem is Not Enough

There has been a mixed response to the NFL’s recent announcement to have Lift Every Voice and Sing performed before every week 1 kickoff. It’s my opinion that performing this anthem at sporting events is a nice symbolic gesture, but it does not actively dismantle any of the structural racism that permeates nearly every sector of our society. The recent uprisings across the country are a direct response to continued systemic inequity, abuse and violence enabled by racist ideologies and policies. Deep-rooted changes are required for genuine progress.

In learning from authentic accounts, as opposed to tales of nostalgia, it’s critical for us to unpack the social need and desire for anthems. The Star-Spangled Banner has only been the national anthem for 89 years, while Lift Every Voice and Sing has been an anthem embraced by people of color for at least 111 years. Very few Americans are aware of this reality.

The Star Spangled Banner

In 1814, Francis Scott Key wrote a poem that would become the lyrics to The Star-Spangled Banner. Key’s poem reflected his account of the War of 1812. While the first verse of The Star-Spangled Banner is most widely known, the last three verses are generally omitted from the American consciousness. This is largely due to fact that the other verses could be interpreted as supporting slavery and white supremacy.

In 1916, a year before the U.S. entered World War I, President Woodrow Wilson signed an executive order designating The Star-Spangled Banner as the national anthem. It was sung publicly for the first time at the 1918 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the Chicago Cubs. It’s important to note that this moment happened in the midst of World War I, when there was a need to boost the morale of America’s mainstream with a unifying anthem.

The US Congress did not confirm the executive order to adopt The Star-Spangled Banner until 1931 during the Great Depression. Timing is everything. Once again, the argument could be made that this gesture was intended to boost the nation’s morale in a turbulent moment.

Knowing this history, we must ask ourselves this question today—how can Black Americans embrace an anthem tied to an exclusionary perspective of freedom?

Image: Portrait of James Weldon Johnson

Image: Portrait of James Weldon Johnson

Lift Every Voice and Sing

In comparison, the anthem Lift Every Voice and Sing holds a tone and tenor of universality and inclusion. James Weldon Johnson, an influential novelist, poet, composer, educator, diplomat, lawyer, social critic, and civil rights activist, wrote the lyrics to Lift Every Voice and Sing in 1900. Like The Star-Spangled Banner, it was initially a poem. It served as a tribute to the endurance, persistence, and restless hope for justice and equity in America.

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