One Super Bowl, Two National Anthems?

The uses and misuses of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Bruce Bawer is a Shillman Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.

His mother was a white girl who’d been abandoned by her black baby daddy before the infant’s birth. She gave the child up for adoption, and he found a home with a white couple who’d lost two sons because of heart defects. By all accounts they were loving parents. Yet six years ago, during a pre-game performance of the national anthem, their adopted son, who’d become a NFL quarterback, introduced the toxic business of “taking a knee” as a protest against the purported oppression of black people by white Americans. With that one action, Colin Kaepernick unleashed a whirlwind of mischief that inflicted very real and substantial damage upon his country’s precious, hard-won social cohesion, thereby ensuring that he would go down in history not as an athlete but as an activist with a thoroughly destructive legacy.

If the impact of Kaepernick’s actions extended to every corner of American society, their first impact was on his own sport. As “taking the knee” became popular in the world of football - professional, college, and high-school alike - boys and men who’d learned to regard one another as teammates, as brothers, now saw themselves as irremediably divided by skin color. This sense of racial division was exacerbated just this past February 1, when Brian Flores, a former coach who is both black and Hispanic and who was fired last month by the Miami Dolphins after two successful seasons on the job, filed a class-action lawsuit against the NFL alleging racism in the “hiring and retention of Black Head Coaches, Coordinators and General Managers.”

Given all this racial strife, you might have expected the fifty-sixth Super Bowl, which took place last Sunday at the spectacular new SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, California, to be a less than harmonious spectacle. For better or worse, and for reasons that are impossible to explain to foreigners, this annual event has long been not just a football game but the year’s most conspicuous patriotic ritual, the athletic competition itself swathed in symbols of American freedom, might, and unity: a giant Stars and Stripes covering a large portion of the playing field, a military color guard in full regalia, a cutaway to a contingent of U.S. armed forces standing in solemn attention while stationed at some faraway installation (in this instance, a base in Kuwait), and a flyover by multiple Air Force fighter planes in tight formation.   

Then, above all, there’s the singing of the National Anthem. I’d never heard of Mickey Guyton before, but after hearing her put over “The Star-Spangled Banner” on Sunday, I’ll never forget her. A 38-year-old black country/R&B performer from Texas who, according to a Wall Street Journal profile, “grew up listening to gospel music and said she was inspired to become a singer when she was around eight years old and saw LeAnn Rimes perform The Star-Spangled Banner at a Texas Rangers game,” Guyton released her debut single in 2015 and her first studio album last year. I’ll look into her own music later; all I know is that on Sunday, she knocked the National Anthem out of the park, doing something thrillingly original with it while at the same time treating it with a full measure of respect.

During her performance, thankfully, there was no sign of anybody taking the knee. On the contrary, at least one black player could be seen mouthing the lyrics. Perhaps one reason for this apparent moment of patriotic harmony was that the game’s organizers, in a bow to the current racial pressures, also included on the schedule - and not for the first time - a rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” otherwise known as the “Black National Anthem.” Last year it was sung at the Super Bowl by Alicia Keys; this year, the honor went to a four-time Grammy-winning gospel duo called Mary Mary. Both performances used the exact same words:

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.

Because it’s been dubbed the “Black National Anthem” - a label that was first given it by the NAACP in 1917, but that, in today’s climate, inevitably implies the splitting of America into a Disunited States with one anthem for whites and another for blacks - “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been the center of controversy during the racial insanity of the last few years. But its lyrics don’t bear a trace of the madness of, say, Ibram X. Kendy or Robin DiAngelo - or, for that matter, of Colin Kaepernick. On the contrary, in the form presented by Keys and by Mary Mary, it’s a solid civil-rights anthem in the spirit of Martin Luther King, Jr., with vaguely religious references to “faith” and “the listening skies,” a worldview shaped not by Marxist power dynamics but by a hope for equal rights in a land of liberty, and a recognition that that “new day” of freedom and equality is already beginning to dawn.

As it happens, the version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” performed both by Keys and by Mary Mary is limited to only one verse of the three that were written in 1900 by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and that, five years later, were set to music by his younger brother, J. Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954). Both Johnsons, let it be said, were remarkable men: the elder wrote poems and novels and musical comedies, edited newspapers, served as consul to Venezuela and Nicaragua under President Theodore Roosevelt, and served as the first black executive secretary of the NAACP and the first black professor at NYU; the younger, for his part, studied music in London and at the New England Conservatory, created, produced, and performed in a number of Broadway shows, and for several years was the director of a music school for black children in New York. Not bad for two black guys living in Jim Crow America.

Yet despite all their respective achievements, the most memorable was the song they wrote together, which has had an extraordinary history. I used to know every word of all three verses by heart, because it’s hymn #599 in the current (1984) hymnal of the Episcopal Church and was on heavy rotation in one of the churches I used to attend in New York. I was always happy to see it listed in the weekly service sheet, because it’s a gorgeous piece of musical writing that’s fun to sing and deeply moving to listen to. Note, in its second verse, which admits to moments of anguish, fatigue, and lost hope, the echo of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic,” with its stirring spirit of martial determination and resilience in the face of all that human frailty - as well as of evil:

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?

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.

Exhilarating stuff. But it’s not until the third and last verse that the song, which after this point cannot properly be called anything other than a hymn, explicitly spells out the message that the strength to overcome one’s own frailties and to confront the wickedness of racial injustice is a divine gift. In addition to acknowledging this, the hymn, recognizing the perennial possibility of being led astray in this righteous struggle, appeals to the Almighty to keep his faithful warriors on the true path:

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.

There you have it: the true path for the fighters for racial equality is the path of Christian love, of perseverance in faith and humility in the face of worldly temptations, and, as the hymn’s very last line proclaims, of an American patriotism that - precisely because America was, uniquely, founded on a belief in a divinely ordained freedom and equality for every child of God - is inextricably bound up with Christian devotion.

Far, then, from being a suitable anthem of racial hatred, division, and revolt, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is, especially when sung in its entirety, an eloquent call to common humanity and shared patriotism (that is, those values that are celebrated every year in the opening moments, however kitschy you may consider them to be, of the Super Bowl) and an expression of joint opposition to all those mischievous and, yes, ungodly forces - such as Kenzi, DiAngelo, and, of course, Colin Kaepernick - that would lead all of us who prize freedom and equality, whatever the color of our skins, into unnecessary discord.

Some people would like to strip “Lift Every Voice and Sing” from the Super Bowl. I can understand why: one nation, after all, should have one national anthem. But if the Johnson brothers’ hymn is going to continue to be featured at the Super Bowl in the years to come, shouldn’t three or four more minutes be allocated to its performance so that the singer can include all three verses? For when you listen to the whole work, it’s absolutely clear that this distinctly American piece of music is the furthest thing from a “Black National Anthem.” It’s a hymn that can be sung with conviction and brio by every American who believes profoundly in America’s founding creed of individual liberty and equality - and who, for that very reason, rejects the demonic new dogmas whose pernicious prophets seek to tear us apart.

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