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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.