Poem #24: Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing by James Weldon Johnson

Estimated Reading Time: 3.5 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleLift Ev'ry Voice

James Weldon Johnson

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


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.

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 fathers 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.

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.


There's much to enjoy about this poem. The theme of overcoming much and being guided by God is a familiar one in poetry in general and more specifically in African American poetry as have been covered in other poems in this series.  And Johnson was definitely a more well-known and established poets.  But to me, this poem is one that sounds moving.  It's not just the meaning and essence of words themselves that drive the sound of this poem but their structure and relation.  It's what some of the best poetry does--create a sonic experience that resonates with the textual experience.  We see this executed in a few ways in this poem. The most familiar are the rhyming schemes (sing/ring, rise/skies, etc) that happen at the end of lines but also within lines ("Facing the rising sun of our new day begun").  But then it's also the alliteration of phrases like "rejoicing rise", "watered, we" "where the white" and the assonance of other phrases like "harmonies/Liberty", "resound loud".  

These melodic elements of the poem hinted at its possibility of being a song too and a quick search revealed two fascinating things.  The first is that it was put to music by Johnson's brother in 1899 and also it is often referred to as "The Black National Anthem".  Given its tone and the popularity of Johnson, it does not surprise me.  Recently, I had read a book by Henry Louis Gates that drew directly from this poem in its title ("Stony the Road").  

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections
This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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