By MURPHY BROWNE
Lift every voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring.
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the listening 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.
First verse of the ‘Black National Anthem’.
In 1900, the ‘Black National Anthem’ or the ‘African-American National Anthem’ was written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938) and then set to music by his brother John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954) in 1905.
In her autobiography I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, African-American author/poet Maya Angelou writes about the significance of the Black National Anthem during her class graduation from the eighth grade in Stamps, Arkansas.
It was a day that began with her proudly anticipating graduation and wishing the morning would never end. That feeling soon dissipated with the speech of a White politician who was visiting the school. He told the graduating class of the school where African-American students attended, that the White high school would be equipped with the “newest microscopes and chemistry equipment” while the African-American students could look forward to an improved playing field at their high school where they could train to become better athletes.
The then 12-year-old Angelou realized that the White politician had ascribed positions in the society based on race where “the White kids were going to have the chance to become Galileos and Madame Curries” while, as African-American eighth graders, Angelou and her classmates should proudly anticipate a future as athletes, “maids and farmers, handymen and washerwomen”.
The man with his “dead words” had killed the promise and hope of the African-American students as “left and right the proud graduating class of 1940 had dropped their heads”. The graduating ceremony continued after the visiting politician and his aide left but to Angelou “the ugliness they left was palpable”.
The student who had been chosen as valedictorian was well into his carefully rehearsed speech when he paused after noticing that his classmates were no longer proud and excited to graduate. He then led his classmates in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. That set the tone and soon everyone in the audience was singing along with heads held up proudly.
Many were in tears by the time they were finished singing the anthem and Angelou describes the general feeling after singing the anthem: “We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race”.
Every morning the students of the Africentric Alternative School sing the powerful and inspiring words of the Black National Anthem. The words have inspired generations of African-Americans as they dealt with living in a White supremacist culture. Many like Angelou have risen above the rabid, overt anti-African racism to which they were subjected for many years of their lives from childhood.
The strength and determination of the African-American community to educate their children even when they were forced to dwell in substandard school buildings with inferior and broken equipment while the White schools were equipped with the best should stand as an example to us. There are many in power who continue to oppose the Africentric Alternative School and there will be some deliberate sabotaging attempts, but we must remain strong and determined.
African centred education is not a new concept. It has proven successes especially in the U.S. where there are 105 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs). Hampton Institute, which was founded on September 17, 1861, will celebrate its 148th anniversary. Hampton Institute was founded by an African-American woman who taught her people when it was still illegal to teach enslaved Africans to read and write in the U.S.
The alumni of the HBCUs are some of the most famous and successful African-Americans: James Weldon Johnson, who wrote the Black National Anthem, attended Clark Atlanta University; Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights activist (Morehouse); Sean “P. Diddy” Combs, businessman (Howard); Common, actor, hip-hop artist (Florida A&M University); Rosa Parks, civil rights activist (Alabama State); Oprah Winfrey, talk show host (Tennessee State).
The list goes on: Thurgood Marshall, Supreme Court Justice (Lincoln); Alex Haley, author of Roots (Alcorn State); Ed Bradley, award-winning ’60 Minutes’ correspondent (Cheyney State); Bessie Coleman, who in 1921 became the first female African-American pilot (Langston College); Branford Marsalis, jazz musician (Southern University); Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple (Spelman); Toni Morrison, author of Beloved (Howard); Langston Hughes, poet (Lincoln).
Fifteen Members of the U.S. Congress attended HBCUs.
Reading some of the comments against the Africentric Alternative School it seems some people fear that the students will not see themselves through the limiting eyes of White people. That must be frightening for people whose sense of superiority is threatened.
Wearing their uniforms, which includes vests with the adinkra symbol, Gye Nyame (Except for God, I fear none) prominently displayed, our children are a beautiful group as they stand tall and sing every morning.
The second verse of the Black National Anthem addresses our past, present and future:
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.