Ever Wondered Why HBCUs “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing?”

What Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, Beyoncé’s Formation, and the Black National Anthem have in common.

For more than 100 years, “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” has been a part of the black college experience. Every historically black college and university graduate has heard it— at football games, at convocations, and at commencement. Most of us have sung it. Some of us still know it — if only its first stanza.

Lift every voice and sing
Till 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 till victory is won.

Heralded as the “Negro National Anthem,” the song towered over the Black experience in the United States for much of the twentieth century but was initially written as a poem in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson, a 1894 graduate of Atlanta University — now Clark Atlanta University.

Then a grammar school principal, Johnson, who later emerged as an American diplomat, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People leader, and prominent voice in the Harlem Renaissance, had his younger brother John Rosamond Johnson, a composer who taught music at Florida Baptist Academy, set his words to music.

The song was first sung by a choir of 500 that included students from the Florida Baptist Academy — now Florida Memorial University — on February 12, 1900 at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, held at the segregated Stanton School where the elder Johnson was principal.

As the sons of the Bahamian native Helen Louise Dillet Johnson, who was the first black female teacher in a grammar school in the state of Florida, the Johnson brothers were well-acquainted with black achievement in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. But, the brothers also knew all too well, the bitterness of the racism so pervasive to the American experience at the turn of the twentieth century.

As Jacksonville natives, they were undoubtedly familiar with the story of how the promise of Florida Baptist Institute in Live Oak, Florida was nearly cut down in its prime whenunknown persons” fired shots into one of the school’s buildings in 1892, leading to the founding of the Florida Baptist Academy more than 70 miles away in the basement of Jacksonville’s Bethel Baptist Church.

It is difficult, if not impossible to ignore how this story, and the other compelling narratives of higher educational centers founded for the purpose of educating marginalized black people weave together to represent the history of America’s historically black colleges and universities. Their foundings represented courageous efforts to affirm black academic potential and respectability, to secure black personal and collective advancement, and to assert black lives always have, and always will matter, even in the face of clear, present, and very real dangers.

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 died
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.

The song’s singular place as an expression of black freedoms and un-freedoms, of black hope and disenchantment, and of black struggles and black strivings was followed by the publishing of W.E.B. Du Bois’ classic The Souls of Black Folk in 1903.

A 1888 Fisk University graduate, W.E.B. Du Bois used the book’s first chapter to make the case for the right to vote, the right to a good education, and right to be treated with equality and justice as the predominant needs of Blacks of the South. In doing so, he coined “double consciousness” as a reference to Black identity amid the damning psycho-social divisions of white supremacy and racism in American society.

“It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness, an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”

– W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk

It is this “two-ness” that, has for more than 100 years, kept “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” as an integral part of black college history. In an age in which we have moved from hashtagging #BlackLivesMatter to hashtagging the names of those whose black lives didn’t seem to matter — after encounters with the police left them dead on city streets, on corner stoops, in subways, in Wal-Mart stores, and even in their own homes — HBCUs help to keep the song in its seminal place in black culture.

Its singing persists as a symbolic ‘taking a knee’ to the inequity and injustice still so ever-present in American life. Like the knee quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers Colin Kaepernick now takes during the singing of the National Anthem, it is a protest whose militancy is not in violent weaponry, but in nonviolent wokeness.

Its spirit persists in unexpected places and ways including in the Shaderoom.com, clap-back quality of Beyoncé Knowles-Carter’s “Formation,” replete with its unrepentant profanity and sex-positive messaging that led to a spike in sales at Red Lobster.

Armstrong State University African American literature professor Regina N. Bradley described Knowles-Carter’s Super Bowl performance as that of an “HBCU dance line diva” and compared her evolution to that of Howard University alumna and Harlem Renaissance writer Zora Neale Hurston. The description is arguably fitting for the daughter of Matthew Knowles who is of HBCU lineage by way of her father’s 1974 graduation from Fisk University.

The protest of each of these seemingly disparate acts is clear. So too is the place of black colleges in the long and on-going black struggle. HBCUs took on the lion’s share of guiding the freedmen from slavery to freedom. HBCUs provided intellectual homes both real and imagined for displaced Harlem Renaissance personalities like the Johnson brothers and Hurston who taught at these institutions. HBCUs educated the nation’s returning black veterans on the G.I. Bill, and HBCUs provided their students as foot soldiers for the nonviolent revolution known as the modern Civil Rights Movement.

HBCUs have long been touted for their ability to dance the fine line of black self-determination and white philanthropic funding, of nurturing nonviolent insurgency while discouraging violent insurrection, of producing accomplished and respected graduates who, to borrow from Shirley Chisholm, seem “unbossed and unbothered” by what 1953 Howard University alumna and Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison has dubbed “white gaze.”

These are qualities that have not been without damaging consequences, but they have served us well. So, I hope that we always hold on to the words of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” in our traditions in spite of whatever opposition to it rises up. I pray we forever carry its words with us — and that on our minds, in our hearts, and from our lips will ring out:

God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast 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 forgot Thee,
Shadowed beneath Thy hand, may we forever stand,
True to our God, true to our native land.