An anthem for all Americans


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By Reggie Ponder

Thursday, January 24, 2019

This week I have thought seriously about how it came to be that a song addressing a history of hardship that I didn’t experience has come to be one of my favorite hymns.

I absolutely love James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” sometimes known as the “Negro National Anthem” and nearly always sung at Martin Luther King Jr. Day events and many occasions of special significance in the black community.

Singing the song with the crowd at the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Breakfast in Elizabeth City on Monday was the highlight of the day for me.

It always is a highlight and that always strikes me as just a bit odd. I mean, what do I know about “stony the road we trod,” except what I have read in books or seen in movies?

Obviously the “we” in the song refers most precisely to the experience of black people in America.

But I have made peace with the idea that Johnson’s powerful lyric has a vital message beyond its most literal historical reference. The song also invites all Americans to embrace “the rising sun of our new day begun” by seeking a way of peace, justice and opportunity for all people.

There’s something about the rising sun.

Just a moment ago I had the awesome experience of watching the sun rise over the Pasquotank River. It’s not often I see a sunrise and even less often that I get to view such a spectacular sunrise over water. The sight first caught my attention because it was radiating a deep amber glow.

As I started paying attention to the beautiful scene the color eased into a soft yellow light but the whole scene continued to pulse with the promise of a new day.

I like the way each new day presents a new opportunity. I’m glad I’m not limited to the things I have gotten wrong on previous days but have a new day ahead of me to do things right.

I do think the words of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” work at least in a secondary way as a call to live better and more courageously.

That of course means different things for different people. It manifestly means different things for black people resisting the vestiges of racism than it does for white people who want to be allies of blacks and other minorities (or at least stay out of their way).

At the end of the day I believe that despite all the beliefs, habits and circumstances that divide us, there is still a positive vision that can unite us as Americans, and that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” articulates such a vision in a powerful way.

I think it can be the “Negro National Anthem” yet also serve as a song of inspiration for all Americans.

Reggie Ponder is a staff writer for The Daily Advance.