November 2000

American growing pains

By Julian Bond
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When the Johnson brothers, James Weldon and Rosamond, wrote the song, "Lift Every Voice And Sing, in 1900 to honor President Lincoln's birthday, they certainly had no idea how important their creation would be to future generations of African Americans. In a glowing new collection that celebrates the 100th anniversary of the anthem, 100 voices have been assembled to comment on the song's influence on their lives and on the state of race relations in the nation.

The Johnsons intended the inspirational song to serve as a musical protest against the humiliating conditions of Jim Crow and the bloody wave of racial lynchings that were sweeping the country. The book's editors, NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, a veteran civil rights activist, and Sondra Kathryn Wilson, literary executor of the James Weldon Johnson estate, work hard to keep the historical angle front and center. Following an informative introduction by the editors, the authors let each of the assembled voices speak in brief essays.

Historian John Hope Franklin reminisces about his days as a young Fisk University student when he heard James Weldon Johnson dramatically recite the song's lyrics during one of his lectures. Poet Maya Angelou tells how the residents of her impoverished hometown of Stamps, Arkansas, would cry when singing the song, thinking of what opportunities time could bring for their children. Entertainer Harry Belafonte praises the song's "dual message of the dark past of slavery and hope. Former U.S. Senator Ed Brooke remembers how the song revived the sagging spirits of the enlisted men and officers of the segregated Negro 366th Infantry Combat regiment fighting in Italy during the Second World War. The collective impact of the tribute is supported by an eye-catching collection of photographs from the fabled archives of the Schomberg Center for Black Research in Harlem, many of them never previously viewed. Lift Every Voice And Sing is highly recommended for those interested in African American history, the growing pains of democracy and America as a glorious work in progress.

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