When I was in elementary school, William S. Maxey Elementary School in Winter Garden, Florida, we learned this song during Negro History Week. Every year we would sing this song the way it was written by James Weldon Johnson and put to music by his brother J. Rosamond Johnson. I was taught that the Johnson Brothers from Jacksonville, Florida wrote this composition to be sung at a special assembly celebrating Abraham Lincoln’s birthday during a Booker T. Washington’s visit. James Weldon Johnson also composed a book of poems, God’s Trombones, that reflected seven sermons heard in Black churches. Lift Every Voice and Sing would be the hymn of the day on many Sundays in February. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was called “The Negro National Anthem.”
After integration, the Black schools in my area were closed and the song was only heard on some Sundays during the month of February. Then I went to Hampton Institute (1974-78). The director of choirs was Dr. Roland Carter. He brought new life to this song. Even though I am not a singer his arrangement was powerful and brought new insight to what the song was about. Each line contains spiritual truths to meditate on. I will just relate a few truths because to give my thoughts on each line would take more than one paper.
In my opinion, many of the lines of this song are a part of a powerful prayer reflecting God’s grace and unmerited favor. If it was written today, instead of singing- Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has brought us, we would sing “We’ve come this far by faith, leaning on the Lord”. We can recite scripture “Sing unto the LORD for he has done excellent things (Isaiah 12:5) or as it is written Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us. Yes, it is a song echoing the faith of our ancestors because the Bible says “Now faith is the things hope for and the evidence of things not seen” my ancestors only hoped for a better day for their children and their children’s children. We stand on the faith that they had in their gloomy past. This faith led to the prayers of hope for a better day for their future generations.
David asked God should he pursue to recover all, (I Samuel 30:6) the song suggests that our ancestors inquired of the Lord and found strength to believe that one day we will recover all, so let us march on until victory is won.
Facing the rising sun, of our new day begun-we know that each day brings new mercies because Lamentations 3: 22-23, lets us know that it is of the Lord’s mercies that we are not consumed they are new every morning.
Yes, this great cloud of witnesses sought the Lord and He answered them. Today many of us are in the place where our weary forefathers and foremothers shed silent tears. Many of us will never understand or know of the sacrifices that this great cloud of witnesses made for us to have a better life. May we forever stand true to our God, true to our native land.
Father God, keep us forever in your path, (because you are the way, the truth and the light) we pray.
Debbie P. Williams – Author
Note: Here’s a link to “Lift Every Voice and Sing”.