Soundtrack for Black History: 12 months a year

You're writing about the NFL pre-game?!

It’s weird to find myself writing about anything even remotely related to sports. When casual conversation turns to the Orioles or the Ravens, I usually remind my friends that I divorced sports when my first marriage ended. But as Black History Month draws to a close, I’ve been following reactions to the inclusion of Lift Every Voice and Sing – the “Black National Anthem” in the Super Bowl LVII Pregame show.

In 1899 poet and activist James Weldon Johnson composed the lyrics (and his brother John the music) to be performed the following year at a celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. It was debuted by a chorus of 500 Black children, and spread by word of mouth. He called it “National Hymn.” We’re talking about a time period when the gains of post-Civil War Reconstruction were gutted by the spread of Jim Crow. The NAACP began calling the piece a “Negro National Anthem” in 1917. Just a year before that,  President Woodrow Wilson – who also introduced segregation into the Federal government – signed an executive order making the Star-Spangled Banner “our” national anthem.

The NFL began playing the song before its games in the 2020 season after the months of protests following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police.

Take in the lyrics...

…while noting that the Superbowl versions feature only the first verse. (Much as we are offered only the first verse of the Star Spangled Banner. See Go Deeper for more):

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.


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.

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.

Copy this into your browser: YouTube Lift Every Voice and Sing

Click on the links you are drawn to.

To my Black and Brown readers, if your favorite isn’t here, please take a moment and send me the link!

To my white readers: take a musical browse break. Find a version that touches you. Bookmark that link. Adopt it as your personal go-to Soundtrack any time you find yourself 1) brought up short by media, and/or your own your own racialized response to breaking news, or to an interaction with a colleague or a friend 2) wanting to recognize, honor, celebrate a liberating moment of Black and Brown Renaissance, personhood, culture, creative genius, perseverance.

Music has the power to open us up to transformative learning.

No matter whether we take this as a hymn or an anthem: we know the proper response is to stand. To stand up. To stand with. To stand up for.  This hymn invites us – all of us –  to stand and honor the dignity, the history, and the hopeful future of Black and Brown people in our nation.

My favorites:

Alicia Keys’ pre-recorded video for the Super Bowl LV. Remember  this is recorded a few months after George Floyd’s murder and in the first year year of the Pandemic. Look carefully for the masks and t-shirts that Say Their Names.

The Chicago Children’s Choir,  where all three verses are sung. Recorded for their 2022 Black History Month Concert, one of the most breathtaking of Covid-times Zoom videos – how some 288 kids united in voice in their physical isolation.

Go Deeper

Consider the implications of this excerpt from Verse 3 of the Star-Spangled Banner. Francis Scott Key wrote the lyrics during a young America’s 1814 war with the British. It was adopted as our National Anthem in 1931,  when the country was suffering the  effects of the Depression and the Dust Bowl. And the Harlem Renaissance was in full bloom.

No refuge could save the hireling and slave

From the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave,

And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave

O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Make history…reshape, re-form, your own racialized history…

You don’t have to lay down this path alone.

Gather a group of 6-12 friends, colleagues, who share your desire and readiness. We can begin to imagine and create a world where racial healing is an ongoing feature of our personal lives and the world.

Pick my brain for 30 minutes about –

a 2-hour practice-based format for working with our own lived experiences and racialized origin stories

A 4-hour practice-based retreat encounter with our personal and national history, the American Dream, and American Citizenship.

For those embedded in a family, community, or workplace challenged by today’s controversies and conflicts, I offer a bundle of six 1/1 sessions of support for personal inquiry, skill-building, and transformation to negotiate the rough waters of your racialized and gendered life.

Let’s take these illuminating and strengthening steps together.

On Black Bodies in A Groundhog Year

After ten months of privileged, demanding, yet hardly ruinous self-isolation, time is losing its grip on my White Body.

One day is so much like another that I have ordered the clock pictured above and made a prominent space for it directly across from my seat at the diningroom table. 

So engaging with Black History Month in this Groundhog Year has prompted me to reflect on a the hundreds of years that Black and Brown people have survived ownership and control of their bodies: bone-crunching, spirit-defying Groundhog Century after Century.

Paul Laurence Dunbar was the son of parents who had been enslaved in Kentucky before the Civil War and himself died of tuberculosis at age 33. In his poem Forever he wrote:

I had not known before

    Forever was so long a word.

The slow stroke of the clock of time

    I had not heard.

Maryland Poet Laureate (1979-1985) Lucille Clifton shared some Kentucky history with Dunbar: she wrote that one of her women forbears had been the first Black woman to be “legally hanged” for manslaughter in the state. She invites us to join her in won’t you celebrate with me:

won’t you celebrate with me

what i have shaped into

a kind of life? i had no model.

born in babylon

both nonwhite and woman

what did i see to be except myself?

i made it up

here on this bridge between

starshine and clay,

my one hand holding tight

my other hand; come celebrate

with me that everyday

something has tried to kill me

and has failed.

Whether or not you live in a place where we can sniff spring around the corner, this month is a time to reflect on and celebrate the survival of Lucille Clifton, and every other Black and Brown body. Each a whole human being, gifted and limited.

For those of us who are White, it’s on us to end the ever-repeating Groundhog history of controlling Black and Brown bodies, and shape a different world.

Our individual acts of repair may be small we think,             

creating barely a ripple. 

Together, we can make this historical time                                            a lasting, sea-change moment. 

No one else is coming along to do this work.

It’s on us.