James Weldon Johnson Poem Sung at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church

On Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday (January 15) the congregation sang the hymn, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church. [1] Here are five comments about this hymn.

James Weldon Johnson
James Weldon Johnson

First, the lyrics for this hymn were written by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), an African-American author, educator, lawyer, diplomat, songwriter, and civil rights activist, including serving as the executive secretary (1920-1930) of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He also was an active poet, novelist and anthologist of black culture’s poems and spirituals in the Harlem Renaissance.[2]

Second, these lyrics were written by Johnson as a poem for a celebration of Abraham Lincoln‘s birthday on February 12, 1900, at the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Florida, where Johnson was its principal. The honored guest at the School that day was Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), a famous African- American educator, author, orator, and advisor to U.S. presidents.

John Rosamond Johnson
John Rosamond Johnson

In 1905, the poem was set to music by Johnson’s brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873–1954), an African-American composer and singer, later prominent in the Harlem Renaissance. The song became widely popular and known as the “Negro National Anthem,” a title that the NAACP adopted and promoted.[3]

Third, here are the actual lyrics:[4]

“1 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.

Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,

sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;

facing the rising sun of our new day begun,

let us march on till victory is won.

2 Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod,

felt in the days when hope unborn had died;

yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet

come to the place for which our people sighed?

We have come over a way that with tears has been watered;

we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last

where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.

3 God of our weary years, God of our silent tears,

thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;

thou who hast, by thy might, led us into the light,

keep us forever in the path, we pray.

Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee,

lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee;

shadowed beneath thy hand, may we forever stand,

true to our God, true to our native land.”

Fourth, the hymn’s words and music of the first verse are joyous and hopeful: “Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring, ring with the harmonies of liberty.” The third verse returns to this joyous and hopeful theme.

At the same time, however, there is an undercurrent of pain drawn from the African-American experience. “The dark past” appears without elaboration in the first verse while the third verse talks about “God of our weary years, God of our silent tears.” The second verse provides some of those painful details: “Stony the road we trod, bitter the chastening rod, felt in the days when hope unborn had died. . . over a way that with tears has been watered; we have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered . . . from the gloomy past.”

Fifth, I give thanks for the inclusion of this hymn in the worship service on Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday at Westminster. I also give thanks for the witness of James Weldon and John Rosamond Johnson and my taking the time to re-read the lyrics, to do the research reflected in this post and to reflect on the meaning of those lyrics.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and a video recording of the service are online.

[2] James Weldon Johnson, Wikipedia.

[3] Lift Every Voice and Sing, Wikipedia; Stanton College Preparatory School, Wikipedia; Booker T. Washington, Wikipedia; J. Rosamond Johnson, Wikipedia.

[4] Lyrics, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” Hymnary.org.

Langston Hughes’ Poem Sung at Minneapolis Westminster Church

On Martin L. King, Jr. Sunday (January 15) Cantus, a male vocal ensemble, sang ‘America Will Be!” as the Offertory Anthem at Minneapolis’ Westminster Presbyterian Church.

The text of the anthem was Langston Hughes’ powerful poem, “Let America Be America Again” with music by Paul J. Ridoi, composer and a tenor vocalist with Cantus.[1]

Afterwards I discovered the actual title of the poem, retrieved and read and re-read the words of the poem and conducted Internet research about the poem and Hughes and after reflection came to powerful conclusions about the poem.

Langston Hughes
Langston Hughes

First, Hughes (1902-1967), an African-American, was a poet, novelist and author and an important participant in the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s. He flirted with communism, but never became a member of the Party, and as a result in the 1950’s was subpoenaed by a Senate committee led by Joseph McCarthy, which was portrayed in a play at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater.[2]

Second, the poem was written in 1935 in the midst of The Great Depression and originally published in the July 1936 issue of Esquire Magazine.

As another commentator said, the poem speaks of the American dream that never existed for blacks and lower-class Americans and the freedom and equality that they and every immigrant hoped for but never achieved. The poem besides criticizing their unfair life in America conveys a sense of hope or call to action to make the American Dream soon come.[3]

Third, the actual text of the poem is the following:

“Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed–
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free.’)

Say, who are you that mumbles in the dark?
And who are you that draws your veil across the stars?

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek–
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean–
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today–O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Yet I’m the one who dreamt our basic dream
In the Old World while still a serf of kings,
Who dreamt a dream so strong, so brave, so true,
That even yet its mighty daring sings
In every brick and stone, in every furrow turned
That’s made America the land it has become.
O, I’m the man who sailed those early seas
In search of what I meant to be my home–
For I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore,
And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea,
And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came
To build a “homeland of the free.”

The free?

Who said the free? Not me?
Surely not me? The millions on relief today?
The millions shot down when we strike?
The millions who have nothing for our pay?
For all the dreams we’ve dreamed
And all the songs we’ve sung
And all the hopes we’ve held
And all the flags we’ve hung,
The millions who have nothing for our pay–
Except the dream that’s almost dead today.

O, let America be America again–
The land that never has been yet–
And yet must be–the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine–the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME–
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.

Sure, call me any ugly name you choose–
The steel of freedom does not stain.
From those who live like leeches on the people’s lives,
We must take back our land again,
America!

O, yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath–
America will be!

Out of the rack and ruin of our gangster death,
The rape and rot of graft, and stealth, and lies,
We, the people, must redeem
The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers.
The mountains and the endless plain–
All, all the stretch of these great green states–
And make America again!”

Fourth, the poem’s first three stanzas (minus the first three parenthetical statements) open with a common statement of the American Dream. But it soon becomes apparent the poet speaks for those who are left out of that Dream.

That certainly includes all members of his own race—blacks– who have been repressed and disadvantaged by the Great Depression: “American never was America to me . . . It never was America for me . . . There’s never been equality for me, Nor freedom in this ‘homeland of the free,’ . . . I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars, . . . I am the Negro, servant to you all . . . And torn from Black Africa’s strand I came . . . The land that’s mine–… Negro’s, ME.”

But the poet also speaks for others who are similarly repressed and disadvantaged—(a) “I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart;” (b) “I am the red man driven from the land;” (c) “I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek;” (d) “I am the young man, full of strength and hope, Tangled in that endless chain Of profit, power, pain, of grab the Land! Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need! Of work the men! Of take the pay! Of owning everything for one’s own greed!” (e) I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil;” (f) “I am the worker sold to the machine.” (g) “I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—Hungry yet today despite the dream. Beaten yet today;” (h) “I am the man who never got ahead, The poorest worker bartered through the years;” (i) “I’m the one who left dark Ireland’s shore, And Poland’s plain, and England’s grassy lea;” (j) one of “the millions on relief today, the millions shot down when we strike, the millions who have nothing for our pay;” and (k) “the land That’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s.”

Yet all of these now repressed and disadvantaged people are the ones “who dreamt our basic dream . . . to build a ‘homeland of the free. . . who “made America.”

The poem’s opening lines by using the passive verb “let” suggests that the desired changes in America will just happen by some outside forces. The concluding lines of the poem, however, reject that interpretation and instead become a call to action by the repressed and disadvantaged: who “Must bring back our mighty dream again . . . We must take back our land again, America! . . . And yet I swear this oath—America will be! . . . We the people must redeem The land, the mines, the plants, the rivers. The mountains and the endless plain—All, all the stretch of those great green states—And make America great again!”

I especially invite comments from those who have studied Hughes’ life and works more extensively than I have.

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[1] The bulletin for the service and a video recording of the service are online.

[2] Langston Hughes BiographyLangston Hughes, Wikipedia; U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy Encounters Langston Hughes at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater, dwkcommentaries.com (May 13, 2012).

[3] Poem, Let America Be America Again, PoemHunter.com; Let America be America Again, Wikipedia. The title of this poem was used in a 2004 presidential campaign song by John Kerry, then a U.S. Senator. I will resist the temptation to wonder whether Donald Trump’s incessant campaign slogan “Make America Great Again” was drawn from this poem. I doubt it, and Hughes, I am confident, would be appalled at any such use of his words.