Music Identity History

Lift Ev’ry Voice: Encountering Hope in Our National Anthem

Lucia Nolan

Widely known as the African American National Anthem, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” started as a poem by James Weldon Johnson. His brother, John Rosamund Johnson, set it to music in 1899. Anthems matter. A national anthem is a symbol that represents the history, beliefs, and traditions of a people.

“Lift Ev’ry Voice…” is more than a song. It brings to mind the testimonies of Black leaders who leaned on the Word of God as they cast a prophetic vision of justice for Black people. Its lyrics call to mind the stories of our ancestors, the same enslaved people who laid the musical foundations of multiple genres of American music, including gospel. 

Even when I didn’t know Jesus, these stories made it impossible for me to separate him from the history of my people. I encountered Jesus in the lyrics of “Lift Ev’ry Voice…” The gospel reached me through song before I ever heard it preached.

I didn’t grow up in church. I don’t have many childhood memories of people talking about Jesus. I do, however, remember standing at the piano with my mother playing the keys as she taught me the songs she loved. “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” is one of the first songs I remember learning. I didn’t know much about God, but I began to fall in love with the music written by his people. I didn’t know what he looked like, but I never forgot what he sounded like. 

The first verse of “Lift Every Voice” is the most well-known, but I believe that the soul of the anthem lies in its third verse:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast 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.

The final line, “True to our native land,” is a phrase that I’ve never been able to shake. I know that my ancestors are from the continent of Africa, but I don’t know which nation, tribe, or ethnic group they belonged to. Their names have been lost to me. Their languages have been lost to me. 

I have made futile efforts to restore the stolen parts of my story. I took a DNA test hoping that a list of West African countries would help me reclaim a piece of my identity. Then I imagined approaching my friends from those countries and claiming a culture that I had neither inherited nor been invited into. 

With disappointment, I had to reflect on a loss that I will not be able to ameliorate in this lifetime. I admit that there are some days that I still try. I find myself attempting to connect to the lost parts of me by traveling to the continent and enjoying its rich cuisine. And while these activities bring me joy, they are not the same as restoration. 

Ultimately, my Father is the source of my restoration. The loss of knowing my full heritage does not separate me from him. Philippians 3:20 says: 

“But we are citizens of heaven, where the Lord Jesus Christ lives.”

Philippians 3:20

I was born in a country that stole my ancestral homeland, but I know that it can never steal my spiritual homeland. No human empire nor spiritual power can take my identity as a daughter of God. No one can take his image from me. So I praise my God who desires to lead me into a better future. He guides me towards joy and hope, even in darkness. 

Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand. 
True to our God,
True to our native land.