Is It Okay for me to Belt Out “Lift Ev-ry Voice and Sing”?

Stony the road we trod
Bitter the chastening rod
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died
Yet with a steady beat
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?

At our last Presbytery meeting via Zoom, the final hymn was Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing and someone noted that they needed the words. (The lyrics were not provided on the screen.) A quick-moving pastor pasted them to the Zoom Chat.

Most White People do not know the words to this song known as The Black National Anthem – or at least we don’t know the words to all three verses. It’s a beautiful hymn first written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson to celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday at The Stanton School in 1900. Booker T. Washington was a special guest that day and Mr. Johnson was the school principal.  

We often sang that hymn when I was a pastor outside Our Nation’s Capital but to be perfectly honest, I felt uncomfortable singing it.  My personal history and the history of my White ancestors doesn’t include chastening rods and the death of hope.  I’m not saying that my ancient forebearers had it easy settling land in Virginia and then North Carolina.  I’m saying that they were never in chains brought to Virginia and North Carolina against their will.

This is the same feeling I get when I sing We Shall Overcome alongside Black siblings.  Although Pete Seeger made it famous, the song was written by the Rev. Dr. Charles Tindley, a Methodist Episcopal pastor whose father was enslaved before emancipation.

We shall overcome
We shall overcome
We shall overcome, some day

My own White privilege has made the need to “overcome” less pressing than most people.  There is no comparison between what I’ve had to overcome compared to Black and Indigenous People, and other People of Color.  Yes, we there a collective urgency to overcome systemic racism, sexism, and poverty and yet as I’ve stood on church steps or in sanctuaries singing this historic song, I am aware of the irony of someone like me belting out the lyrics alongside friends who can’t get a fair mortgage rate or the same healthcare I’ve always had because of the color of their skin.

Some songs do not belong to us.  I’m not saying that non-Christians should refrain from singing Amazing Grace.  I’m not saying that it’s wrong to join in when Jewish friends are dancing to Hava Nagila although it would feel strange to sing it at a Christian or Muslim wedding.  

Avoiding the appropriation of someone else’s culture has changed the way we dress our children for Halloween and how we accessorize ourselves as adults (no Black face ever, no wearing somebody’s Purple Heart medal as jewelry, no using a sacred Native American stone as a coffee table.)  Appreciating other cultures is complicated in that we can acknowledge other cultures without usurping them.

Not every song, not every fashion choice, not every home decorating idea is for me . . . unless I do the serious work of making myself aware of the history and culture behind those choices.  If we honor each other, if we seek to understand each other, if we respect each other then not only are our lives enriched, but our connections to each other are strengthened.

This is the role of the Church, my friends.  Look at how Jesus crossed boundaries to befriend those of other cultures and faiths.  Read the gospel stories through that lens, and then praise Jesus for giving us the charge to expand the colorful, story-filled reign of God by loving people whose experiences are not like our own.

Painting of James Weldon Johnson by Laura Wheeler Waring in the National Gallery of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC (1943)

4 responses to “Is It Okay for me to Belt Out “Lift Ev-ry Voice and Sing”?

  1. I recorded it, recently, to be used for my church’s covid service. I thought as long as it was going to be done anyway, i might as well do it and try to do it properly. In the end, I’m very grateful for the opportunity to learn it deeply. I consider it one of the most beautiful hymns written in English. It’s a sermon, moving from invitation to testimonial to prayer.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Jan.
    I wonder if I’m hearing an individualistic take on the songs in your comments today. When I’ve sung “We Shall Overcome” in all kinds of groups and settings, I’m not focused on what I have to overcome, I’m focusing on what we need to overcome together. Or have we lost the idea of solidarity in a fear of being accused of coopting someone else’s pain or grievance? We have a long way to go to recover the sense that we are a we.

    Liked by 1 person

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