Lift Every Voice and Sing

In honor of Martin Luther King, jr., whose birthday we celebrate today, here is the Black National Anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing”:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ya7Bn7kPkLo]

I’ve long loved this hymn and wished that it might find a place in Mormonism. There’s a risk, though, that, drawing on resonances with the Mormon pioneer story (for instance), we might simply appropriate it into a narrative and culture that strongly tilt white.

But maybe that white tilt is exactly why Mormons need to sing this hymn: to open our hearts to a new perspective on this history in which we, after all, played a part. The spirit of Elijah comes to turn our hearts to our fathers and our mothers; perhaps singing this hymn could lead us to count among our fathers and mothers people who were “despised and rejected of men,” considered less than human, less than fully valiant, and unworthy of priesthood or temple blessings—including by us. We cannot be saved without them: not until we learn to see God in the faces of black women and men, and learn to see in ourselves the Gentile nations who inflicted suffering on the very Israel God sent to save them. We cannot be saved until we join in their song instead of waiting for them to join in ours.

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening 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 till victory is won.

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 died?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,
Out from the gloomy past,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by Thy might
Led us into the light:
Keep us forever in the path, we pray—
Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee;
Lest our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee.
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

Comments

  1. Beautiful and appropriate for the day, Jason; thank you. (Also, everyone who has any free time this afternoon: go see Selma, right now.)

  2. In seeking pardon for Britain’s crimes during the slave trade, the Archbishop of Canterbury once said that the body of Christ transcends the present. So, by singing this hymn today, we sing it on behalf of our own white ancestors* whose crimes of slavery and racism we can help make right. We sing it by proxy and help enact their forgiveness along with our own.

    (* I do not necessarily mean this literally. I suspect my impoverished forebears had little to do with these evils but I am still the inheritor of a civilisation that got rich on the back of slaves. It is not empty to say “sorry” for we are they and they are we.)

  3. Yes, Ronan: exactly right. And Mormonism gives us an explicit call to think about our ties to our collective ancestors as part of a greater process of Christian salvation and healing.

  4. It’s worth saying, too, that the dependence of first-world economies on slavery and other forms of exploitation is not just an inheritance, but an ongoing reality (I type on my smartphone…).

  5. RJH, for some BCC readers your words are quite literal.

    I am a direct descendant of southern slavers. My ancestors’ decisions led our family into war, into death, and destitute poverty following the war. We persisted in our stubborn prejudice – segregating ourselves from our colored kin and working to thwart their avenues for growth as a misplaced balm to our pride. It did not work. One cannot segregate himself from the children of God without segregating himself from God. And thus we passed through a long night of spiritual death.

    Sixty-five years ago the darkness began to break. Two young elders from the Wasatch front brought my grandparents the message of the restoration. We embraced their gospel. And through an expiatorial wrestle have made progress to purge our family, our church, and our country of the stain of this great pride. We have begun to remove the curse of Cain – a curse created by man, but a very real curse nonetheless. We have begun to act with valiancy, with a hope that through the infinite atonement there is yet time for our family to keep its second estate.

    With this hope, during tonight’s Family Home Evening, my wife, my children and I will sing the songs of our brothers’ struggle. We will sing Amazing Grace. We will sing Down By the Riverside. We will sing Lift Every Voice and Sing. We will sing not just for ourselves, but also our ancestors – deeply flawed children of the same God, children without whom we cannot be saved. And my children will be taught that while they are children of the fall, they are also children of the redemption.

    – Dave K.

    PS – my favorite rendition of Lift Every Voice and Sing is from the Wardlaw Brothers:

  6. I wish that we could have this song ring out through the halls of every meeting house, and written in the hearts of every Primary child.

    I know my ward has been asking for more nonchoir musical numbers, with the willingness to have a wider variety of music than has traditionally been accepted. I just sent an offer to sing this, with any families who would like to join me.

    I also invited several non-LDS singers, who are people of color, to join me. I am posted the invitation on our unofficial FB page, and scheduled rehearsal time in a room at the college. Eight families have already responded that they are interested. Two families that are committed are very TBM and honestly surprised me, in a wonderful way. :-)

    Thanks for giving me this push!

  7. Huzzah! Huzzah!