2009-02-13 / Columnists

The Rockaway Beat

Time To Relegate 'Lift Every Voice And Sing' To History's Dustbin
Commentary By Howard Schwach

When I was still teaching in Far Rockaway in the 1980s and 1990s, we occasionally were assigned a black assistant principal who demanded that assembly programs begin not with "America" or with the "Star Spangled Banner," but with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which those supervisors pointed out was the "Black National Anthem."

I usually pointed out that we were all Americans, and that we needed only one national anthem, but they usually countered with an argument that went something like, "Black kids have no self-esteem because they have no chance to ever be leaders, so they need their own inspiration. They don't believe in the dream of equality for all, so they need something of their own."

I never believed that, but I was in no position to argue, so I stood there as the kids sang:

"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 faith that the dark past has taught us,

Sing a song full of hope that the present has brought us;

Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

Let us march till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

Yet with a steady beat, we have not our weary feet,

Come to the place where 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.

God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,

Thou who has 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.

You can see why the song became a hymnal in many black southern churches in the 1960s.

The song presented me with many challenges, many doubts.

First of all, it is blatantly religious, at a time when somebody reading the Lord's Prayer would be booted out of the school.

All those references to God and Thy hand, and Our God.

Secondly, what "native land" were they talking about?

While those who wrote the poem in the early 1900s and put it to music slightly later believed that it was a paean to American freedom, many of those who later used it for their own agendas claimed that Africa was indeed the native land referred to in the last line of the song. And, that's what kids all over the city have been taught.

I have always believed that separating kids when they are in their formative years is destructive to real democracy, whether it be for religious purposes, racial purposes, gender purposes or any other purpose.

The more kids stick together, the more they get to know each other and the more the differences between them melt away.

Having a black national anthem that was sung in school and another that was sung in the real world simply segregated black kids more certainly.

Not believing that poor self-esteem was an issue that could be solved by providing trophies for failure or by having a special song, I had a great disdain for "Lift Every Voice and Sing."

Now, however, with a mixed-race man in the White House, a man who many call "black" even though he had a white mother and a white grandmother who raised him through his formative years (I wonder if they ever sang "Lift Every Voice and Sing" at his Hawaii school), it is time to move away from the belief that a black person cannot aspire to high office and to send the song to the dustbin of history along with "I Dreamed I Met Joe Hill Last Night" and "While We Were Marching Through Georgia."

What brings this up once more is that many of our local schools celebrated the inauguration of Barack Obama, the first mixed-race president, with assembly programs that opened not with the Star Spangled Banner, our official National Anthem, but with Lift Every Voice and Sing, as if the victory was not for a more inclusive America, but for blacks alone.

I am sure that black men and women serving our armed forces are not singing "Lift Every Voice and Sing." They consider themselves Americans.

I want kids to feel the same way, and having a second national anthem just for them is not a good message to send kids.

In some of the schools, a special lunch of collard greens, biscuits and other "traditional black food" was served in honor of the ascension of a black man to the presidency.

I somehow doubt that President Obama ever ate those foods when he was growing up in white Hawaii, nurtured by a white grandmother because he was abandoned by both his black father and his hippy mother, who was searching for the meaning of life somewhere in Southeast Asia.

That is not a knock on Obama. I believe that he has done a good job so far in choosing an experienced group of people for his cabinet (I just wish that some of them had paid their income taxes) and he has quickly begun addressing the financial crisis.

It is a knock, however, on those who would separate us by race simply by pushing a second national anthem, this one only for one segment of the population.

With a mixed-race president, it is time for black activists to retire "Lift Every Voice and Sing" and join the rest.

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