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“You should write it down because if you don’t write it down then they will come along and tell the future that we did not exist.”

Suzan-Lori Parks, The Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World

Singing the Nation Into Being is a Black digital humanities project that aims to stir discussion about the meaning and resonance of James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (1900). Also known as the “The Negro National Anthem” and “The Black National Anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was initially conceived as a poem, meant to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. Johnson and his brother J. Rosamond later transformed the text to song to honor Booker T. Washington’s visit to The Stanton School in Jacksonville, Fla., where Johnson was the principal. Since Johnson’s initial conception, a performance by a chorus of 500 schoolchildren, until the most recent iterations—such as Beyoncé’s performance at Coachella—the song has remained central, in many ways, to Black American life.

Singing the Nation Into Being will develop in two phases using the minimal computing model.1 The first phase features a collection of video-recorded performances and mashups created by a wide range of individuals and groups demonstrating a variety of vocal and presentation stylings—from a cappella to choral performances to recitation and more—in spaces both public and private. These videos form what I call an “ephemeral archive,” works created and uploaded often with a single intention, such as observation of a holiday or a meaningful date (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday or Juneteenth), to mark a significant event (Barack Obama’s election), or to demonstrate shared cultural practices (step shows and Black church services). Ephemera, generally understood as having no lasting significance or purpose, would seem a limited site for exploration both temporally and spatially, bound as they are to notions of value and relevance and permanence. This might, in turn, set limits on the kinds of discourses that surround such objects and the ways we engage with them, particularly given their proliferation, brought about in part through the process of “democratization” of the Internet and the development of ease-of-use tools, such as YouTube. But with this video collection, I argue for the salience of ephemera created by Black people, and the work they do as potential sites of memory and materiality. Engaging in a process of active reconstruction, what Toni Morrison terms rememory, I return to the spaces in which artists, groups, and everyday people locate their digital creations, in an attempt to (re)construct routes to other sites of memory that might allow us a different understanding of the resonance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as well as its potentialities.

A second phase of this project will examine video metadata—comments, likes, dislikes, up/down votes, number of visitors, uploader narratives, and other data that get appended to each digital object.

I use YouTube as the primary source for this project because of the ease of use and accessibility for both uploaders and myself (this “ease” will be part of my later analysis on this site vis-à-vis a minimal computing context). Yet, I remain keenly aware of the ways in which corporatized spaces such as Google, are not “neutral” or benign sites but also serve in the mediation and commodification of Black people and Black cultures (Noble 37). So context matters: where the videos are located, who accesses them, how that content is used (and by whom), who owns the content, and the ethics of doing this work of “collecting”—are also questions this project aims to address. The thinking and the working through are ongoing.

This is by no means an exhaustive collection, but rather, a sampling. The seventy-five videos in this collection are organized into categories: Celebrity, Choir, Documentary, Group, Mashup, News, Solo, and Youth. Yet these categories are not discrete. Some of the videos span two or more categories (for example, Choir + Youth or Mashup + Solo + Celebrity). These intersections highlight the ways in which the videos elude a simple classification, troubling the notion of capture. This elusiveness further demonstrates the ephemeral nature of these works as well as the way that juxtaposition, vis-a-via a “collection,” both reveals the “hyper ephemerality” of the videos (Everett 11) and forces us to rethink our ideas of (im)materiality and the (ir)relevance ascribed to these kinds of digital objects. What might Aretha Franklin’s call-and-response in her performance juxtaposed with a mashup that features archival footage from the Civil Rights Movement help us to better understand about blackness—about identity, black creativity, community, and belonging? Further, how do we place and understand videos of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” that are not created by or feature Black people?

Moving through the collection, you will also notice that some videos are missing. In the process of collecting these works over several years, objects have moved or disappeared. Creators might have set their videos to “Private,” had content removed for violation of use terms, decided that they no longer wanted presence in this space, or any number of reasons. The choice to include such works is deliberate on my part. I want to consider what these “lost” videos offer us in their absence. These missing objects haunt the archive, help constitute it, and complicate simple readings of digital ephemera created by Black people.

Singing the Nation Into Being thus invites us to think about how we derive meaning from these performances and creative reworkings of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” With this project, I also attempt to make a case not only for the importance of ephemeral objects, but also for the creators of such digital materials, many of whom take time and care to construct and deploy compelling visual and sonic narratives about Black life and Black creativity.

Works Cited

Everett, Anna. Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace. State University of New York Press, 2009.

Gil, Alex. “The User, the Learner and the Machines We Make.” Minimal Computing: A Working Group of GO ::DH, 2015.

Morrison, Toni. “The Site of Memory” in Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir, William Zinsser, Editor. Houghton Mifflin, 1995, pp. 83-102.

Beloved, Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1987.

Noble, Safiya Umoja. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York University Press, 2018.

Parks, Suzan-Lori. Death of the Last Black Man in the Whole Entire World. The America Play and Other Works. Theatre Communications Group, 1995.

Works Consulted

Alexander, Elizabeth. “Memory, Community, Voice.” Callaloo 17.2 (1994) 408-421.

Baraka, Imamu Amiri. Black Music: Essays. Akashic Books, 2010.

——Tales of the Out and the Gone. Akashic Books, 2007.

Campt, Tina. Listening to Images. Duke University Press, 2016.

Gordon, Avery. Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination. University of Minnesota Press, 2011.

Johnson, James Weldon. Along This Way: Autobiography. Da Capo Press, 1973.

Morrissette, Noelle. James Weldon Johnson’s Modern Soundscapes. University of Iowa Press, 2013.

Parham, Marisa. Haunting and Displacement in African American Literature and Culture. Routledge, 2011.

Perry, Imani. May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem. University of North Carolina Press, 2018.

Redmond, Shana L. Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora. New York University Press, 2014.

Seniors, Paula Marie. Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Culture of Uplift, Identity, and Politics in Black Musical Theater. Ohio State University Press, 2017.

Sharpe, Christina. In the Wake: On Blackness and Being. Duke University Press, 2016.

About Sonya

Sonya Donaldson is Associate Professor of English at New Jersey City University. In addition to her digital humanities project, Donaldson is also completing a book manuscript, Irreconcilable Differences?: Memory, History, and the Echoes of Diaspora, which examines autobiographical narratives, music, and performances by Black writers and artists. A Mellon-Mays Fellow, Donaldson is currently a Virginia Humanities Fellow and a Visiting Scholar at the University of Virginia’s Scholars’ Lab. Donaldson is also a former journalist who served as the Technology Editor at Black Enterprise magazine, and completed stints at Inc. magazine, Ziff-Davis publications, and the L.A. Daily News. Her scholarly work has appeared in Callaloo, The Feminist Wire, African and Black Diaspora: An International Journal, and Women, Gender, and Families of Color.

  1. This site is designed using a minimal computing model. As Alex Gil notes, an approach to minimal computing centers around the question of need, what is necessary and enough to do the work: “If we do so, our orientations vis-a-vis ease of use, ease of creation, increased access and reductions in computing—and by extension, electricity—become clearer” (“The User, the Learner and the Machines We Make” 2015). I am indebted to Alex for helping me to see this project to fruition. ↩︎