Lift Every Voice and Sing

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained improvisation and extemporaneous remarks. Sermon copyright (c) 2009 Daniel Harper.


The first reading was poem by James Weldon Johnson, the poem “O Black and Unknown Bards.” It is not included here due to copyright restrictions.

The second reading is from James Weldon Johnson’s autobiography Along This Way.

“I admit that through my adult life I have lacked religiosity. But I make no boast of it; understanding, as I do, how essential religion is to many, many people. For that reason, I have little patience with the zealot who is forever trying to prove to others that they do not need religion; that they would be better off without it. Such a one is no less a zealot than the religionist who contends that all who “do not believe” will be consigned to eternal hell fires. It is simply that I have not felt the need of religion in the commonplace sense of the term. I have derived spiritual values in life from other sources than worship and prayer. I think that the teachings of Jesus Christ embody the loftiest ethical and spiritual concepts the human mind has yet borne. I do not know if there is a personal God; I do not see how I can know; and I do not see how my knowing can matter. What does matter, I believe, is how I deal with myself and how I deal with my fellows. I feel that I can practice a conduct toward myself and toward my fellows that will constitute the basis for an adequate religion, a religion that may comprehend spirituality and beauty and serene happiness….

The human mind racks itself over the never-to-be-known answer to the great riddle, and all that is clearly revealed is the fate that man must continue to hope and struggle on; that each day, if he would not be lost, he must with renewed courage take a fresh hold on life and face with fortitude the turns of circumstances. To do this, he needs to be able at times to touch God; let the idea of God mean to him what it may.”

Sermon — “Lift Every Voice”

This year, during Black History Month, I wanted to speak with you about Black poets; more specifically, about American poets of African descent.

I want to speak to you about poets out of a deep theological concern. Poets make the world; taking poetry in its broadest sense. When I say that poets make the world, I don’t mean that they wave a magic wand, or wave their hand and say magic words, and — Poof! — they create some object, like a stage magician. But I do mean to say that there is a basic connection between language — between what we speak and hear and write and read — a connection between language, and the very core of our beings.

Thus it is that poets make the world: their poems are not expressions of feelings so much as they are manifestations of our existence. This is why religious scriptures are so powerful to us: they are a form of poetry, and like all great poems religious scriptures make the world anew. There was nothing like it in the world before, when some ancient poet captured the essence of Moses in his words to Pharaoh: Let my people go. There was nothing like it in the world before, when some ancient poet captured the essence of Gotama Buddha in the words: There is a middle path that leads to peace of mind. There was nothing like it in the world before, when some ancient poet captured the essence of Jesus in the words: Love your neighbor as yourself. When I say that poets make the world, I don’t necessarily mean people who who write things in a form which your high school English teacher would tell you is a poem. What I mean by poets are those masters of language who, through their language, change our beings; poets are those who transform us and the world.

As religious liberals we are always open to new sources of inspiration. This is what we mean when we say that we are not orthodox: we do not have one correct source for religion, one book or text that is frozen for all time. We remain open to new sources of inspiration; revelation is not sealed for us, revelation continues to emerge around and through us. And today, revelation continues to emerge most clearly, I believe, in poetry, or in works of prose that function as poetry.

Now you know why I want to talk with you about poets, and their poetry. And why talk specifically about Black poets? Well, there are many things in our society that I would like to transform, but one of the great moral problems facing us in the United States today is the problem of systemic racism — and when I say “systemic racism,” I am not concerned with individual prejudice but rather with that impersonal system of racial inequality that continues to permeate American society. White, black, no matter what color our skin, none of us likes systemic racism. So how can we transform this reality or systemic racism? I’m afraid that too many of our white poets have ignored this compelling moral question; and so I find myself turning to certain African American poets.

In this first sermon in this series on Black poets, I thought I’d begin with the most influential Black poet. No, I’m not going to talk about Alice Walker, or Gwendolyn Brooks, or Langston Hughes, or — name the famous African American poet you might think I should preach on. I’m going to begin with James Weldon Johnson, in the full knowledge that his may be an unfamiliar name.

Yet I will say without doubt (without doubt in my mind, anyway) and without equivocation that James Weldon Johnson is our most influential Black poet. I am aware that there are some English professors in our congregation, and I would be foolish to make a judgment about literary quality; so I will not claim that James Weldon Johnson is our best African American poet. So Johnson is not our best poet, nor our most famous poet, but I still claim him as our most influential poet. And I make that claim on the basis of one poem he wrote, a poem which was written as a hymn.

Here’s the story of that hymn. The year was 1900; the place, Jacksonville, Florida. James Johnson and his brother Rosamond had been in New York City writing popular songs for Broadway; at the time of this story, they were back in their hometown and James was working as a school principal. Here is how James tells the story:

“A group of young men decided to hold on February 12 a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday…. My thoughts began buzzing around a central idea of writing a poem on Lincoln, but I couldn’t net them. So I gave up the project as beyond me…. My central idea, however, took on another form. I talked over with my brother the thought I had in mind, and we planned to write a song to be sung as part of the exercises. We planned, better still, to have it sung by school children — a chorus of five hundred voices.

“I got my first line:– Lift ev’ry voice and sing. Not a startling line, but I worked along grinding out the next five. When, near the end of the first stanza, there came to me the lines:

    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

the spirit of the poem had taken hold of me. I finished the stanza and turned it over to Rosamond.

“In composing the two other stanzas I did not use pen and paper. While my brother worked at his musical setting I paced back and forth on the front porch, repeating the lines over and over to myself…. As I worked through the opening and middle lines of the last stanza… I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so. I was experiencing the transports of the poet’s ecstasy. Feverish ecstasy was followed by that contentment — that sense of serene joy — which makes artistic creation the most complete of human experiences.”

That’s how James Weldon Johnson describes writing the poem which became the hymn “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” I wanted to read that aloud because it helps explain why sometime when I sing “Life Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” tears come to my eyes. There is something in that poem that worked on Johnson while he was writing the poem, and which still works on me today.

Johnson finished the poem, his brother set it to music, and they sent it to their music publisher in New York, and got enough mimeographed copies to distribute to their children’s chorus; they taught it to the children; the new song was a great success; and James and Rosamond went back to writing songs for Broadway. But the song took on a life of its own. Within a few decades, it had spread throughout much of the United States, and had been adopted by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. James Johnson said that his song got its widest distribution, not through copies obtained from his music publisher, but through “printed or typewritten copies of the words pasted in the backs of hymnals and the songbooks used in Sunday schools, Y.M.C.A’s, and similar institutions.” In other words, the song took on a life of its own; it spread because it touched something deep within people’s hearts; and it spread beyond Black America to White America as well.

So why did this poem — not a great poem, perhaps — why did it become such an influential poem? I can think of a number of reasons why this poem is so influential. It is influential because Johnson’s words rang true; even if his words aren’t great poetry, his words have the ring of truth. It is influential because we sing this poem: we embody this poem with our breath and our voices, and then it blends together with the other voices singing it around us, and takes on a peculiar power in this way. It is influential because it is easy to memorize: I have a poor memory, and even I can remember most of the first verse.

For all these reasons, we still sing this song more than a century after it was written; it is still considered the African American national hymn; and I continue to be impressed how, when you start singing this hymn with a group of Americans, how many of them (even us white Americans) know at least some of the first verse. And if a poem — I mean “poem” in the broader sense of the word — if a poem is going to transform us, one way that happens best is if we know that poem by heart, and if we say it (or sing it) aloud; and the power of that poem to transform us increases even more if it is a poem that we say or sing together.

I have some thoughts on how this song transforms us. For many of us who live in the United States, “freedom” and “liberty” seem to have become tired words. “Freedom” — that old stuff, we don’t need to hear about that, that all got taken care of in 1776. “Liberty” — well, the Liberty Bell is cracked, and that should tell you about the state of liberty in this country. What James Johnson manages to do in “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” is to remind us that freedom and liberty were not won in 1776; nor were they won on January 1, 1863; nor were they won when the Civil rights Act was signed; nor, most probably, will they ever be completely won for any of us, black or white or whatever our skin color. When I sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” I am reminded that human beings have a hard time living up to their ideals; and I am reminded that freedom and liberty are a process, not an end-state.

Johnson was in his twenties when he wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” He went on to write other, better-regarded poems and novels and books. Perhaps his best-known book of poems is a small volume called God’s Trombones, beloved of religious liberals. But I’d like to skip past all that, skip ahead to a book he put together with his brother Rosamond in 1925 when he was in his mid-fifties.

This was their Book of American Negro Spirituals. It is but one of many collections of African American songs and spirituals, but it is important, I think, in large part because Johnson placed one of his best poems at the beginning of the book, the poem we heard in the first reading this morning, “O Black and Unknown Bards.” This poem tells us why we should pay attention to a book of African American spirituals. Johnson elaborates on the thoughts in the poem in his prose introduction to the book, in which he says:

“To supply [the slave] trade Africa was raped of millions of men, women, and children. As many as survived the passage were immediately thrown into slavery. These people came from various localities in Africa. They did not all speak the same language. here they were, suddenly cut off from the moorings of their native culture, scattered without regard to their old tribal affiliations, having to adjust themselves to a completely alien civilization, having to learn a strange language, and, moreover, held under an increasingly harsh system of slavery; yet it was from these people this mass of noble music sprang; this music which is America’s only folk music and, up to this time, the finest distinctive artistic contribution she has to offer the world…. Take, for example, ‘Go Down, Moses’: there is not a nobler theme in the whole musical literature of the world….”

Johnson is telling us about the power of poetry to transform the world. Now we could argue the relative merits of African American spirituals, and whether they are indeed the only American folk music, and so on, and so on. There is a place for such scholarly arguments, but Johnson is making a poetic argument here. He is telling us this: Faced with an impossible situation — an alien civilization, the degradations of slavery, a strange new language — faced with these harsh conditions, African Americans made poetry; and with their poetry, they transformed their souls with nobility, and so transformed the world around them.

These songs continue to transform us, transform all of us here in America. Yes, these old spirituals have a special place in the cultural lives of African Americans, but their poetry can transform all of us. When we sing or listen to these songs, we get connected to those early people of African descent who were forced to come live in America; and we understand the nobility of their souls, a nobility that allowed them to retain their humanity in the face inhuman conditions.

So it is that all of us — African Americans, European Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans — we all are made a little more noble, and that nobility becomes a part of who we are as a people. This nobility breaks down systemic racism, just a little. By allowing us to share in that nobility of soul, we find our own souls becoming a little more noble, and such nobility can serve as a sort of vaccine against impersonal, infectious systemic racism taking hold in our souls.

I wanted to close with brief word about James Weldon Johnson’s understanding of religion. We heard some of his ideas on religion in the second reading this morning. Given the ideas on religion he expresses, I like imagine that Johnson would have felt quite at home in our Unitarian Universalist church. He would even have felt at home in this church back when he wrote those words in 1933, back when the minister here was a staunch humanist named Stanton Hodgin — well, he would have felt welcome here except for the fact that he was black, and in 1933 this church was very definitely a white church. Those were different times back then, racially speaking.

Be that as it may, I still like to imagine what Johnson would have felt if he could show up in our church today. I like to imagine saying to him: You know, what you said back in 1933 — that’s pretty much what I preach from the pulpit; and what you say is pretty much what we do in our church: we don’t have religion in the commonplace sense of the term (which is these parts means orthodox Christianity); we try to practice conduct towards ourselves and our neighbors that constitutes our basis for religion; we feel Jesus is a great spiritual and ethical thinker who inspires us; and each day, if we would not be lost, we take a fresh hold of life, and we renew our courage to do this by touching the face of God, whatever God may mean to each one of us individually.

These religious ideas permeate all of Johnson’s poetry. He is not one of our best known American poets. But he is a deeply human poet, and a humane poet. Even if the critics don’t place him into the first ranks of American poetry, his humanity counts for a great deal. No, he didn’t write anything that is considered as great as T. S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”; but far more people know and have memorized and have been transformed by “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.”

By singing “Life Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” or any of the songs in The Book of American Negro Spirituals, we become for that moment poets ourselves. We bring that written poetry to life by singing, or even just saying the words aloud. In so doing, we transform ourselves, we transform the world, we create new understandings of what it is to be human in America, we make ourselves just a little bit more noble.