Study Guide

Lift Every Voice and Sing Themes

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  • Race

    The word "race" is never explicitly mentioned in "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and yet it's a poem that's all about race. After all, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was written by an African-American poet living in the south in 1900, at a time when Jim Crow was in full effect. How can this not be a poem about race? Even though the poem doesn't mention race explicitly, its focus on injustice references the racial oppression that African-Americans experienced at the time that James Weldon Johnson was alive.

    Questions About Race

    1. If we didn't know that the author of this poem was African-American, would we read it as a poem about race?
    2. What images and metaphors in the poem allude to the struggle for racial equality?
    3. What's the "new day" that the speakers mention in line 9 of the poem? What can this "new day" represent in terms of the fight for racial equality?

    Chew on This

    This is not a poem about the African-American struggle specifically. It's a poem about the struggle for freedom for all.

    Nope, back that up a bit—this poem is just about the African-American struggle for racial equality.

  • Suffering

    From the title, we may guess that "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is a joyous song. It is. But it's also a song that's full of suffering. There's blood, there are tears, and there's even a "chast'ning rod." Why so much suffering? Well, because African-Americans have suffered a lot in America. We just have to think about how horrible slavery was to begin to understand that suffering. And as if that weren't enough, slavery was followed by Jim Crow, which was pretty much as bad as slavery. So the references to suffering in this poem point to all the violence, oppression, and injustice that African-Americans have had to endure.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. How does the imagery of the "road" (11) and "the path" (18) convey the suffering that the speakers have lived through?
    2. What specific images are associated with suffering in this poem, besides those of the "road"?
    3. What's the relationship between suffering and singing in this poem?

    Chew on This

    This poem's true message is that suffering makes us stronger.

    Actually, come to think of it, this poem shows us how suffering doesn't make us stronger; it holds us back.

  • Perseverance

    African-Americans certainly didn't have an easy time in America. And while "Lift Every Voice and Sing" takes account of that difficult history, it also pays homage to the African-American spirit of perseverance. Despite slavery, despite Jim Crow, and despite the discrimination that continued even after Jim Crow, African-Americans survived. Not only did they survive, they flourished, contributing in very important ways to the history of America. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" not only celebrates this fighting spirit, it also encourages African-Americans to keep up the good fight: to fight for freedom and triumph.

    Questions About Perseverance

    1. Why do the speakers of this poem put so much emphasis on perseverance? What is to be gained by perseverance?
    2. Is there a difference between survival and perseverance, do you think? What's the relationship between these two things, or are they the same, according to the speakers of this poem?
    3. What does the poem suggest about the relationship between singing (and music more generally) and perseverance?

    Chew on This

    This poem is trying to show us that perseverance is the only thing we need to achieve freedom.

    Not so fast—the poem shows us that perseverance isn't enough; we also need religious faith to achieve freedom.

  • Religion

    In "Lift Every Voice and Sing," God is a good guy who's been there for African-Americans. The poem suggests that religion, faith in God, is central to the speakers' experience (and to the African-American struggle). Though Johnson wrote this poem way before Martin Luther King Jr. came along, the poem reflects just what an important part faith and religion have played in the African-American struggle for freedom (Martin Luther King Jr. was himself a minister). "Lift Every Voice and Sing" focuses on how, in our darkest hour, the only hope we have is God. Its message is that, if we believe enough, God will help us.

    Questions About Religion

    1. The speakers of this poem suggest that God is on their side. But He also lets them suffer a lot. How do these speakers reconcile their suffering with their faith in God?
    2. Why do you think religious faith is so important to these speakers? Why do they rely so heavily on faith in God?
    3. What's the relationship between this poem and religious prayer?

    Chew on This

    In an odd way, the speakers' suffering only deepens their appreciation of God.

    This poem wants us to know that God is the only thing that can help us endure our suffering.

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