Singing the Nation Into Being is a Black digital humanities project that collects video performances and mashups of James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900). Also popularly known as the “Negro National Anthem” and the “Black National Anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing” looks back to the hardships faced by African Americans and also looks ahead, hopeful, yet cautious, to the “rising sun of our new day begun.” The song ends with an insistence on faithfulness to “our God” and “our native land,” thus staking a claim of belonging for African Americans that is tied to their physical, cultural, and spiritual investment in the nation. From the first performance, Johnson’s initial conception of a chorus of five hundred schoolchildren, to contemporary evocations, the song has remained central, in many ways, to Black life. For some, the song is a memory trigger, calling up experiences of childhood, family, and community, a time of “We-ness,” as Amiri Baraka once noted. For others it is a reminder of dark times and the difficult road ahead—that victory is not yet won. This collection aims to gather some of those memories and reminders to place them in conversation with each other—and with us.
The seventy-five performances and user-created mashups in this collection comprise what I term an “ephemeral archive.” Ephemera are typically understood as impermanent, having no lasting function, save those qualities that attract a collector’s eyes or ears or emotions. Yet, by engaging with ephemera, we can consider the ways that these videos, individually and collectively, might help us reconstruct and better understand Black history, Black culture, and Black life. What can these sonic and visual enactments—sounds, images, emotions, memories—reveal? How might they, as Toni Morrison suggests, allow us to reconstruct our histories and memories to arrive at “a kind of truth”?
Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning 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 ’til victory is won.
Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chast’ning 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,
‘Til 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 has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has 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.
1900, by James Weldon Johnson (lyrics) and J. Rosamond Johnson (music)