TRANSFORMATION JOURNEY: “The Negro National Anthem”


Ne-gro (n)Refers to a person of Black ancestry prior to the shift in the lexicon of American and worldwide classification of race and ethnicity in the late 1960s. The appellation was accepted as a normal and was used by those of Black African descent as well as those of non-African black descent during the eras prior to the Civil Rights movement… During the American Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, some African American leaders in the United States objected to the word, preferring Black, because they associated the word Negro with the long history of slavery, segregation, and discrimination that treated African Americans as second class citizens, or worse… During the 1960s Negro came to be considered an ethnic slur.The term is now considered archaic and is not commonly used. The term is still used in some contexts for historical reasons such as in the name of the United Negro College Fund or the Negro league in sports. “Negro” means “black” in Spanish, Portuguese, and ancient Italian; all of these derive from the Latin niger (i.e., “black”)… 

Now that we’re nearly on the same page, I recall first hearing of “The Negro National Anthem” back when we were “Colored,” perhaps, around the age of seven.  But, it wasn’t until our consciousness-raising battles of the 1960s, when we magically became “Black,” that I began to ponder its meaning.  Like many of us, I still struggle to recite the words.  But, over the years, the tune has taken solid root within my heart.

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty…,” so the song begins.  It’s an anthem, an arousing song of praise.  Retrospectively, the song, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” was written by James Weldon Johnson (1871–1938), poet, novelist, lyricist, educator, lawyer and professor at Fisk University.  At least, he wrote the words, a poem.  His brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), a musician, composed the music, according to historical records.  It was written for a special presentation and celebration of President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.  As a tribute to honor nearly 40 years of freedom for “Negroes,” in the wake of Lincoln’s proclamation setting free millions of slaves, in the United States (except those in areas not in rebellion against the U.S.). It was first performed on February 12, 1900 by the Stanton School’s children’s choir, in Jacksonville, FL.  Further research reveals that, within 20 years, the song had been dubbed “The Negro National Anthem” and adopted as the anthem of our people by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Briefly, the Johnson brothers were the sons of James and Helen Johnson of Jacksonville, Fl.  They were actively involved in the “New Negro Movement” (a.k.a., “Harlem Renaissance,” circa 1919-1935,) a rebirth of black literature and creativity. According to historical archives, their dad (James, Sr.) served as the headwaiter of Jacksonville’s St. James Hotel, following his Bahamas’ sponge-fishing and hauling business, which was ruined by a hurricane in 1886.  Their mother taught for many years in the Jacksonville public schools and taught them while at the Stanton School, as well.  Their maternal grandfather reportedly served in the House of Assembly, in the Bahamas, for 30 years.

Archives further reveal that, at age 16, James Weldon Johnson (Jr.) enrolled in Atlanta University.  At 23, he returned to his school, the Stanton School, to become its principal.  A year later, he founded the “Daily American Newspaper,” reporting on issues significant to the black community and racial injustice.  The paper fell on economic hard times, leading James to law studies, while his brother, John, dived into music following his graduation from the New England Conservatory of Music.  But, James’s poems formed the lyrics for many of John’s songs.  By 1900, they were both in New York, scoring compositions for Broadway musicals.  At age 33, while pursuing a writing career, James secured a post as the United States Consul to Puerto Cabello, Venezuela, through the assistance of Booker T. Washington.  He also served as consul in Corinto, Nicaragua, before returning to the United States to marry Grace Nail, a New Yorker and member of a so-called “well-established African-American family.”  They had no children.  But, during this period, he completed his only novel, “The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man,” about  a light-skinned black man, “passing for white,” among society’s status quo.  He also served as the first African-American field secretary for the NAACP, working with W.E.B. DuBois (editor of NAACP’s “Crisis”), exposing racial injustices and brutality in the “Jim Crow” south. By his late 50’s, James had retired to the life of the Professor of Creative Literature & Writing, at Fisk University.  In his late 60’s, during  a summer vacation, James died in an automobile accident near Wiscasset, Maine.

Meanwhile, now that political-correctness seems to have transformed our people to “African-Americans,” it’s interesting to note how “The Negro National Anthem” morphed, seemingly ‘out of the mouths of babes,’ from a celebratory children’s choir, passed on by students teaching other students, growing in importance and ultimately becoming a melody to inspire a nation- albeit, within a nation. The transformation of the term, “Negro,” has been just as interesting.  The U.S. Census Bureau recently announced that the label, “Negro” (as well as “Black” & “African-American”), is recycled for inclusion on this nation’s 2010 Census form, since “…some older Americans still self-identify with the term.”  Some journey.  Yet, “…Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand, True to our God, true to our native land,” so ends “The Black National Anthem,” today.

How do you feel? Are there any perceived etymological, cultural or psychological transformations, within your lifetime, which you consider significant for the advancement of a group?  A nation?  Is the term, NAACP, still meaningful?  United Negro College Fund?   Or, does it even matter?

“Backstreet…” (w.d.s.)

(Previously posted @ rizingcubenterprises.com)

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About WDSmither

Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. Author of 2018 debut novel "Backroads to Bethlehem...," release date pending.