Lift Every Voice and Sing
by James Weldon Johnson
Lift Every Voice and Sing Introduction
In A Nutshell
"Lift Every Voice and Sing" was written by the African-American poet James Weldon Johnson in 1900. It was written to celebrate Lincoln's Birthday—Lincoln, after all, was the dude who helped African-Americans achieve freedom from slavery. Johnson's brother set the poem to music. Within a few years of its publication, it was being sung all over the place: in the south and the north. Soon, it was dubbed the "black national anthem."
Why was this poem such a big hit? Because it's a poem about the power of perseverance. It's a poem that deals with the hardship of the African-American experience in America, one that tells African-Americans to keep movin' on, to keep fighting for freedom.
Remember, back in 1900 things were still pretty rough for African-Americans. Sure, slavery was over, but Jim Crow was in full force down in the south, where Johnson lived. African-Americans not only had very limited rights, they were often also victims of violence—especially in the south. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" acknowledges all the obstacles that African-Americans still had to face in their struggle for freedom, while also taking stock of the very long way they'd come in that struggle.
For this reason, the song spoke to African-Americans in a very deep way. They all answered Johnson's call to "lift" their voices and sing. The poem gave them a whole lot of hope, and a whole lot of strength, to keep fighting for freedom.
Why Should I Care?
Here's a better question for you, Shmoopers: How could we not care about the African-American national anthem? After all, African-Americans are a pretty darn big part of the history of this country. Slaves helped build the White House. Slaves worked on cotton plantations in the south, which helped enrich the country. After the end of slavery, African-Americans also made big contributions to the culture and the society of the U.S. in very important ways—from the economy to the arts. And they did all of this while white society treated them like second-class citizens.
Let's not forget that the American Declaration of Independence proclaimed that "all men are created equal." Unfortunately, it took a very long time (like a few hundred years) for African-Americans to convince white people that those words applied to them too. They had to fight, and struggle, and protest before they were given equal rights. This history of struggle is such a huge part of the American experience that we can't talk about America without talking about African-Americans. And James Weldon Johnson's poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is an important part of that fight for freedom. It's a poem that embodies that struggle. So, of course we should care about it. Don't we all care about freedom?