Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Let your voice sing!

Growing up in deep South Alabama in the early 60's, with its laws, its rituals, its heritage, its prejudices, there wasn't a whole lot of emphasis on the cultural achievements of people of color. Oh, there was a 'biography' of George Washington Carver in the children's section of the library (more than likely there because we lived in what was known as the Peanut Capital of the World). But art, music (other than gospel/spiritual), poetry, novels - not a hint.

So it was surprising when one day, while I was shelving books at the local library for my after school job, I came across a slim volume of poetry, sort of shoved towards the back of the shelf, with the intriguing title of "God's Trombones." I opened it up, and began to read marvelously simple words, woven together in a tapestry of pictures. I still remember sitting in stunned silence after looking at
"And God stepped out on space,
And He looked around and said,
I'm lonely--
I'll make me a world."

I must have read through the book twice that day, and than checked it out to take home and savor again and again. (Yes, I did get some strange looks for taking out a book by a Negro author, as the librarian phrased it, but she probably figured it was better that I take it home and read it, than it being on the shelves where it might 'corrupt' someone else).

After that, I read as much by James Weldon Johnson as I could, which was not easy in that place, and in those times (without the Internet). When I got to college, I had the chance to find more of his works, as well as writings by poets like Paul Dunbar. What wonderful wordsmiths, speaking from an experience and life not my own, but whose words resonated in my heart and soul.

And then, in 1990, when the new Presbyterian Hymnal came out, it included Johnson's poem, set to music by his brother, J. Rosemund Johnson, entitled "Lift Every Voice and Sing." Written by James Weldon Johnson while he was principal at the Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, for the celebration of Lincoln's birthday in 1900, the lyrics and music became known as the 'national anthem' for the African-American community.

I still remember asking the musician at the church to play it for me, to see what it sounded like, and it sounded just wonderful! While it usually is sung in mainline churches on such occasions as the Sunday closest to Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday, or on Race Relations Sunday, it is one of those that I would sing at least once a month, simply for the power of its words, and the beauty of its tune.

"Lift every voice and sing,
'Til 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 'til victory is won.

"Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast'ning rod,
Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet
Come to the place which our fathers sighed?
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,
'Til 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."

We sang it this past Sunday, and on this day when Barack Obama will stand in that place where his ancestors sighed as they built the Capitol, as he stands and takes the oath of office before all those whose feet are weary from that long journey to this moment in time and history, as rejoicing rises high to the listening skies,

how can we keep from singing?

(c) 2009 Thom M. Shuman

1 comment:

Music at Bethany said...

Beautiful and inspiring thoughts. It was hard to watch the inauguration without a tear. I played "We Shall Overcome" as my prelude that week, but "Life Every Voice" will definitely be on the list for MLK weekend next year.