‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ was first published in 1900. The poem was written with the intention of being sung aloud as a celebration of the African American community and an acknowledgment of their struggles. Johnson wrote the words while his brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, wrote the music.
Explore Lift Every Voice and Sing
Throughout this piece, Johnson celebrates African American heritage, the strength of the men and women who have come before him, and the promise of the future. He does not shy away from the darkness they’ve walked about of but uses it as a reason why their future is so bright. THey’ve suffered for centuries, and it’s this suffering that’s given the men and women in the African American community the strength to forge a true path towards freedom. Johnson’s speaker also thanks God for giving them that strength and asks that they remain at God’s side and standing in the country they’ve lived and died in forever.
Johnson explores themes of freedom, suffering, and joy in ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ The poem is incredibly optimistic. But, it does not ignore the suffering of the past. In fact, the speaker takes the time to acknowledge everything terrible that’s happened to his community throughout time. He cites the men and women who fought for equal rights, suffered at the hands of others, and died without the freedom they deserved as the reason why they can stand in the light today. They’ve walked a stony path, but now they can stand in the light and see into a future that’s far more optimistic. It’s freedom and the ability to celebrate their heritage, families, friends, and futures that they’re looking for.
Structure and Form
‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ by James Weldon Johnson is a three-stanza poem/song. The stanzas are ten, eleven, and twelve lines long. The poem’s first stanza follows a simple rhyme scheme of AABCCBDDEE but then changes somewhat, ending in a triplet in the second stanza. But, it is mostly consistent throughout with couplets and alternate rhymes giving it a very even pattern.
Johnson makes use of several literary devices in ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ These include but are not limited to:
- Alliteration: the repetition of the same consonant sounds at the beginning of words. For example, “Where” and “white” at the end of stanza two and “heaven” and “harmonies” at the beginning of stanza one.
- Imagery: the use of particularly effective phrases and descriptions. They should appeal to the reader’s senses. For example, the line “We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”
- Symbolism: the use of images to convey ideas and additional meaning. For example, the use of singing as a symbol of freedom, joy, and power. It’s a means of expressing the past, present, and future.
- Simile: there is a good example of a similar in the lines: “High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.” Here, Johnson uses “as” to compare singing to the “listening skies” and “rolling sea.” This helps the reader understand his speaker’s perceptive on it.
Before beginning ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ readers should take note of the instructor text that often accompanies the poem. It was written directly from Johnson’s perceptive and describes how the song came into being. He says:
My brother, J. Rosamond Johnson, and I decided to write a song to be sung at the exercises. I wrote the words, and he wrote the music. Our New York publisher, Edward B. Marks, made mimeographed copies for us, and the song was taught to and sung by a chorus of five hundred colored school children.
He adds onto this, saying that the song passed through their minds, but it remained in those of the school children. They “kept singing it” and “they went off to other schools and sang it.” “Today,” he says, “the song, popularly known as the Negro National Hymn, is quite generally used.”
Lift every voice and sing
Till 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 till victory is won.
In the first stanza of ‘Life Every Voice and Sing,’ the speaker begins with the line that later came to be used as the title of the poem. The speaker asks that every voice lift itself to the sky and sing. It should be a celebration of “Liberty.” This is a beautiful image, one that’s meant to inspire celebration and joy in the face of oppression and a history of suffering. The poem defines specific parts of the African American experience, as Weldon saw it. He was thinking about the past, the changes that have occurred since the world was gripped by slavery and horrific inequality. Things may not be perfect, but there is a lot to celebrate. A “new day” has begun but, “we,” meaning the African American community, are still going to “march on till victory is won.”
Readers should note the use of parallelism in this stanza with the repetition of “Sing a song full of” in lines seven and eight. In both of these lines, the speaker asks the reader to sing. One time full of “faith” and the other of “hope” as they acknowledge the past and hope for the future.
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 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,
Till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our bright star is cast.
The rhyme scheme in the second stanza of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ is quite effective, especially considering how short some of the lines are. Most are around five lines long and help to drive home the speaker’s depiction of the past. The road they’ve walked down is “Stony,” he begins. This is a great example of a metaphor. The speaker is alluding to the past and all the obstacles he, his friends, family members, and the border African American community has had to get over. But, they’ve walked on despite the pain and sorrow.
“We,” he adds, have come over “a way that with tears has been watered.” It has been a hard, long fight to get where they are today. He acknowledges this fact and how they never could’ve gotten to the point they’re at without the sacrifices of men and women who have come before them.
There is another good example of repetition in these lines with the use of “We have come.” Specifically, this is an example of anaphora. The white light that ends the second stanza is a symbol of hope and freedom. Now, there truly is hope for the future and the possibility that the suffering of the past will end in joy and safety.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who hast brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who hast 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 forget Thee;
Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand.
True to our God,
True to our native land.
In the final stanza of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ the speaker addresses God. He refers to God as the person who “hast by Thy might / Led us into the light.” It’s with God’s strength that his community has been able to overcome all the horrors in their past and present. These liens take on the form of a prayer as the poem continues. The speaker asks that they “forever” be kept on this lighted path and never “stray” from the places where “we met Thee.” The poem concludes with the speaker asks that “we” stand forever with God and in the land they love and have fought for.
Readers who enjoyed ‘Life Every Voice and Sing’ should also consider reading some other James Weldon Johnson poems. For example:
- ‘Mother Night’ – describes the speaker’s optimistic beliefs in regards to the afterlife and religion.
- ‘Prayer at Sunrise’ – depicts the power of the sun and requests that the speaker is provided God’s strength.
- ‘The Creation’ – a famous poem the depicts the story of Genesis. It depicts a human-like God, the person behind the creation.