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  • Writer's pictureBroadway Church

Lift Ev'ry Voice: Whitewashing a Song

Do you ever get a song stuck in your head? What do you do when that happens? Does it happen with one song in particular? Or is it a different song every time? It helps me to listen to different versions of the song, and sing it out loud on repeat.

This week, the song "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" has been on repeat in my mind. My first memory of the song is from an elementary school assembly when my fifth grade class sang the song together in front of the rest of the school and our parents. The program was the culmination of a unit about the colonial period of American history.

Do you know the song?

Here's what I wasn't taught about it back in elementary school, but have learned since:

- The author and composer were African American men. The song was originally a poem written by James Wheldon Johnson, set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson in 1899.

- It was first performed at the Stanton school as part of a celebration of President Lincoln's birthday in 1900. James Wheldon Johnson was the principal of the school, which was segregated.

- In 1919, the NAACP adopted the song, which then became known as the Black National Anthem.

I sang the song in a predominantly white suburban elementary school in 1995. I didn't know its significance in Black history until I researched it myself as an adult. My experience of the song is one example of systemic racism. I, a young white girl, sang a song in an assembly of white people without being taught the Black history of the song. We weren't even told that James Weldon Johnson was African American. 

We were taught the song in the midst of learning about American Independence from Britain. The song was actually about the struggle for racial justice during Segregation. My own experience of the song is an example of whitewashed history and the ways our educational systems participate in systemic racism.

Tomorrow is the Fourth of July. As you celebrate the American Colonies winning their Independence from Britain, I invite you to notice who that freedom included, and who was excluded.

Honoring where we have been can help us imagine the future we are building together. While we honor the sacrifices and freedoms won in the Revolutionary War, we can also honor the continued struggle for freedom for so many of us who are alive today.

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