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Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring
This line kicks off a pretty optimistic verse.
The entire first verse makes a pretty simple request: sing. Songwriter James Weldon Johnson urges African Americans to sing a song of hope and faith, a joyous song that rings with the "harmonies of Liberty." He also encourages people to sing loudly—so loudly that their voices reach the sky and they drown out the sea.
The belief that loud music can have power may date to the Old Testament account of the Battle of Jericho. As described in the Book of Joshua, the Israelites lay siege to the city of Jericho in their attempts to conquer Canaan. On the seventh day of the siege, seven priests marched around the city seven times blowing on horns. The rest of the Israelites added to the musical blast with their voices until the walls of the city came tumbling down.
Stony the road we trod, bitter the chast'ning rod
These darker lines take the song in a new direction in the second verse.
In the first verse, Johnson summons African Americans to sing a song of hope and faith and urges them to joyously celebrate a “new day.” In this verse, he reminds listeners of African Americans’ brutal past. Johnson cleverly ties the two themes together, though; he closes the first verse with a pledge to “march on till victory is won,” and he opens the second verse with the reminder that those marching have had to travel a “stony . . . road.”
Johnson never uses the word “slavery” in “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” but there’s no missing the tragic history behind the song, especially in the next line, “bitter the chast’ning rod.” The line would seem to reference the lash used by slave owners to discipline slaves. Not every slave owner used the whip—some preferred other forms of punishment—, but there were virtually no legal restraints placed on a master’s use of corporal punishment, and therefore many embraced cruelty and violence as the only way to keep their slaves in line.
Women were whipped as well as men. In fact, Moses Gandy, a slave who escaped to the North and then, with the help of the American Anti-Slavery Society, published his autobiography in 1843, explained that this is why many male slaves preferred to marry women from other plantations. Otherwise, he said, a man was forced to endure the “continual misery of seeing her flogged and abused without daring to say a word in her defense."
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered
The life expectancy of a slave was short.
Like the rest of this verse, this line references the brutal path taken by African Americans from slavery to freedom. This brutality took many forms: some slaves were killed through violent punishments; some were killed by malnourishment and the denial of medical care; some were killed trying to escape to freedom in the North. All of these factors resulted in far lower life expectancies for African Americans than whites. In 1850, the life expectancy for a white person was 40 years, while the life expectancy for a black person was only 23 years. How many more years would you have to live?
God of our weary years, God of our silent tears
In the song’s third verse, Johnson offers up a prayer.
In the third verse, James Weldon Johnson takes the song in yet another new direction. In the first, he urged African Americans to celebrate a new day. In the second, he reminded them of the horrors of slavery. This third verse is directed at God, not men; it is a prayer that God keep them on their righteous path. This prayer acknowledges that God has been with them through the “weary years” and “silent tears,” and it asks that God keep them “forever in the path.”
Johnson had no religious training, but he remained fascinated by the role of religion in black culture. In 1927, he released God’s Trombones: Seven N**** Sermons in Verse. In writing these sermons, he sought to capture the spirit and language of a folk culture that he believed was dying. "The old-time N**** preacher is rapidly passing,” he explained. “I have here tried sincerely to fix something of him."
Johnson sought more, however, than to just preserve this style and voice; he hoped to capture and preserve some of the spirit of African culture. Too many earlier efforts had focused just on dialect, Johnson explained, as though simply imitating black speech would capture the larger culture:
What the colored poet in the United States needs to do is . . . find a form that will express the racial spirit by symbols from within rather than by symbols from without, such as the mere mutilation of English spelling and pronunciation. He needs a form that is freer and larger than dialect, but which will still hold the racial flavor; a form expressing the imagery, the idioms, the peculiar turns of thought, and the distinctive humor and pathos, too, of the N****, but which will also be capable of voicing the deepest and, highest emotions and aspirations, and allow of the widest range of subjects and the widest scope of treatment.
May we forever stand / True to our God, true to our native land
While others would later interpret this line differently, Johnson meant the United States when he said “native land.”
This final line gained increasing importance as the 20th century unfolded. Johnson was an assimilationist; he believed that the goal of the civil rights movement should be integration. By the 1920s, however, other black leaders had grown disillusioned with this objective. They argued that integration was impossible and that African Americans should abandon this unrealistic goal. Instead, blacks should cultivate their identity as Africans. Some, like Marcus Garvey, even argued that they should return to Africa. Johnson, however, was not a “black nationalist.” He remained dedicated to the goal of integration, and thus when he sang “true to our native land,” he meant the United States.