If you’re anything like me, then it’s safe to assume that you joined over 100 million Americans on Sunday to watch the Super Bowl, the championship game for the National Football League. Whether you were fortunate enough to be watching the game from the stands, or you watched it from the comfort of your own living room, you witnessed a fantastic game that saw the Kansas City Chiefs defeat the Philadelphia Eagles with a last-minute field goal that clinched the 38-35 victory. Not every Super Bowl is as competitive as this year’s edition was, but every year the pageantry is second-to-none. Perhaps that explains, at least in part, why tickets to the Super Bowl regularly sell for upward of a minimum of $5000 on the secondary market. If you tuned in at around 4 p.m. on Sunday, then you likely enjoyed the first three official performances of the day. But did you notice that those first three songs that were sung live at the Super Bowl are songs that can be found in the 1982 Hymnal of the Episcopal Church?
Because the first Episcopalians intended that the Episcopal Church serve as the national church for the newly formed United States of America, patriotic songs are important to church identity. America the Beautiful can be found in our hymnal at number 719 and the Star Spangled Banner is found at number 720. But the very first song performed at this year’s Super Bowl, the song sung before America the Beautiful and before the Star Spangled Banner, is a very important hymn in our hymnal. It’s so important, in fact, that a supplemental hymnal in use by the Episcopal Church and found in the pews at St. John’s, shares its name. Sheryl Lee Ralph, donning a stunning red dress and even more impressive vocals, sang Lift Every Voice and Sing, number 599 in our Hymnal (and, fittingly, Number 1 in the Lift Every Voice and Sing hymnal). Like America the Beautiful and the Star Spangled Banner, Lift Every Voice and Sing is more than simply a church hymn. Written first as a poem in 1900 and set to music a number of years later, Lift Every Voice and Sing is also known as the Black National Anthem. As February is Black History Month, it is appropriate that we take some time to learn more about Lift Every Voice and Sing, the Black National Anthem.
But Father Tim, you might wonder. Why is there a Black National Anthem? Isn’t there only one national anthem? These questions seem to pop up from time to time. As is true in many things, the reasoning surrounding this naming is complex. Lift Every Voice and Sing was written by James Weldon Johnson and then set to music by his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson. It was written both as a prayer of thanksgiving and as a prayer of hopefulness. It references an acknowledgement that social justice, especially for African Americans, has come a long way since the days of slavery. It also acknowledges, however, that there is still much work to be done in racial reconciliation. The first stanza of the hymn is as follows:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
The hymn earned its designation as the Black National Anthem by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) because it acknowledges an affirmation of African Americans, as well as a cry for liberation. While some people are critical of the use of the moniker, claiming its use could promote an idea of separatism by Black communities, and others saying we only have one national anthem, it is intended to strive for inclusion rather than exclusion. Hilary O. Shelton, former senior vice president of the NAACP, said the hymn “was adopted and welcomed by a very interracial group, and it speaks of hope in being full first-class citizens in our society.” She added she hopes it will be used in conjunction with the Star Spangled Banner, in much the same way that it was on Super Bowl Sunday. Official verbiage from the NAACP says references to the hymn as the Black National Anthem because the lyrics “eloquently captured the solemn yet hopeful appeal for the liberty of Black Americans. Set against the religious invocation of God and the promise of freedom, the song was later adopted by NAACP and prominently used as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.”
As a white person, I was taught in seminary that the most appropriate etiquette for me to follow during the singing of Lift Every Voice and Sing is to stand in solidarity and to sing along. Lift Every Voice and Sing is not intended to replace the Star Spangled Banner, but rather to remind us that we still have much work to do in the world of race relations. I believe it is perfectly reasonable and appropriate for me to stand with my fellow Americans, supporting the cause for racial justice. I was saddened to see some people remain seated during the Super Bowl rendition of the hymn, particularly because they were doing so as a political stunt. Standing (as, of course, physical ability permits) for Lift Every Voice and Sing is a small act of solidarity white people can perform as a means of literally standing beside sisters and brothers of color and acknowledging the importance of doing as the song says:
Facing the rising sun of our new day begin
Let us march on ‘til victory is won.
As a white person, I respect and honor the message in Lift Every Voice and Sing. I believe it is important for young Black children to see people who look like them in the national spotlight. When Black children watched the Super Bowl this year, for the very first time in 57 years of big games, they saw two starting quarterbacks whose skin looked like theirs. Representation matters and it is an important piece of continuing the very important work of promoting racial justice. I vow to support my sisters and brothers of color and to listen when they tell me they need me to listen and to speak when they tell me they need me to speak. And I vow to stand and sing when Lift Every Voice and Sing is performed. Won’t you please join me in standing in solidarity?