Congratulations to Dr. Naomi André, Professor in the Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, the Residential College, and Women's and Gender Studies, who testified before congress on February 4th, 2022 to add “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as an official United States national hymn. The bill, House Resolution 301, was introduced to congress by Senator James Clyburn of the 6th District of South Carolina. A video of the hearing, the list of witnesses, and links to their written testimonies can be viewed here.
We had the opportunity of meeting with Dr. André to ask her a few questions about her experience. “It was a lot of fun, and a bit nervous-making since I had about one week from when I was first contacted to the time when I was asked to appear before the House Judiciary Committee,” says André, “but it’s something I'm proud of and I’m happy to share.”
What is the significance of this becoming part of a national bill?
I think it’s all about belonging and feeling included. We know that Black people have a special history here in the United States: the sadness and the pain of the middle passage, slavery and its afterlives as well as the incredible triumph and resilience from surviving being brought here en masse as enslaved people. Black folks have stayed in this country and helped build it up. While slave labor was never an honorable, good thing, if a positive legacy can be seen, it is that for four centuries Black folks have had a big part of building and making the U.S. what it is. So it’s nice to recognize that as a type of repair. I am careful to sort of not say ‘reparations,’ because that dialogue tends to be framed around money. I love the fullness of ‘repair’ and how H.R. 301 could begin to recognize these really important contributions and foster a closer collective feeling between American-ness and Blackness.
Having this song, this “hymn,” come from Black experience and Black creators [the brothers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson] is important. During its first performance in 1900 it was sung by 500 Black schoolchildren. It has continued to stay around, working its way through Black folks and communities. It was associated with the NAACP in 1917 and has been added to many Christian hymnals over the years. To have “Lift Every Voice and Sing” now officially recognized not only as a Black hymn, but as an American hymn–a national hymn–is incredible. To me, that just speaks so many good volumes of embracing the larger nation.
What is the difference between a hymn and a national anthem?
A hymn is an older term that goes back to the ancient Greeks. It goes back as early as we have things written down and it comes out of an older oral tradition. It’s a song of praise that can be offered to a deity, a country, a place, or as a celebration of some event. Hymns were an official part of the liturgy. But we see that it’s not just the Christian liturgy, but hymns also go back to Byzantine services, and Jewish songs. As a genre and in practice, the hymn has a multicultural–almost global–legacy as being an important type of song of praise.
I don’t know quite as much about the origins of the anthem. I know it’s not as old as a hymn. Whereas a hymn is a song of praise, an anthem seems to be more of a celebration of a particular event, person, country, or organization. Anthems are also related to praise, so I think we can say that an anthem comes out of a larger category of what hymns are doing. We have a national anthem and one thing I really like about how H.R. 301 is framed is that it is in no way replacing, but sitting alongside, the national anthem.
A hymn has a wide-reaching arena. You can have a hymn that is sung by one person as a solo, but it also hooks into, during the Reformation, congregational singing. This was a development in the liturgy to increase the public’s participation. Rather than just the clergy, you can have a lot of people sing together: a collective expression of praise. So to me, as I started putting my musicology hat on and thinking, it just made a lot of sense to call this a national hymn. For me, with this resolution, Clyburn has hit it spot on. This is a song that grew up in the Black community, reflects Black experience, and also has a wide application where this song can be shared to reflect elements in everyone’s experience.
Though it’s the first verse that is sung the most, when I really looked closely at all three stanzas I realized that there is no specific naming of African Americans, Black people, slavery, or civil rights. Yet this song resonates with all of those things. The words talk about struggle, and, I use this next word very carefully, the words are connected to universal experiences. I’m always nervous about saying, “oh, this works for everyone equally.” No, context matters and there are different meanings shaped by different situations. But the way the text and music work together in “Lift Every Voice and Sing” can definitely be applied to a wide range of human experiences. The fact that the song is rooted in, and has come out of, African American experience says something really special. I hope that part isn’t lost, because this is an important and meaningful contribution of Black culture to our larger American identity. Hopefully it will become our national hymn.
In preparation for my written and oral testimonies, I found a few wonderful videos of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” online. From an elementary school in Brooklyn, NY, to a recording made by the Navy Band Southeast with performers in uniform, and to the NFL starting week 1 of the 2021 season with this song. As these videos and the beginning of the 2021 NFL season show, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is already being sung by a wide range of people and it already functions like an informal national hymn. I can’t speak for all Black people, but I’ll venture to say that I think most Black folks would be happy to have this song sung by everyone, that it’s not just for Black people and singing it with non-Black people can bring a strong sense of solidarity. However, I’ll also add that we need to remember the importance it has for Black folks. This is a song that comes out of Black experience that can become a hymn for America as a nation.
Is there anything else you’d like to add for DAAS readers?
I was born here. I’m an American citizen. And it felt so good to actually do something that feels positive with Congress and the House Judiciary Committee. Hopefully we’re making “Lift Every Voice and Sing” our national hymn. It’s just nice to share that experience because the more you learn about history, the more you realize there are so many painful and unfair things. It’s very nice to see a positive energy in Congress and to do something that made me feel more like I belong. It was an honor to be asked to do this. That was really a cool thing.
To help support the passage of House Resolution 301, contact your representative using the following link: https://www.house.gov/representatives/find-your-representative