THE NFL NEEDS TO SING
FOR UNITY, NOT DIVISION
The National Football league is searching desperately for an ideological “sweet spot” where it can regain lost fans while it presents itself as being sensitive to calls for “social justice.” As part of that effort, the song, “Lift Every Voice” — often referred to as the “Black National Anthem” — will be played before the start of week-one games.
“Lift Every Voice” was written as a poem in 1899 by James Weldon Johnson (1871-1938), an early leader of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson (1873-1954), set it to music.
According to NAACP’s website, the song was first performed on Lincoln’s Birthday in 1900 “by a choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School” in Jacksonville, Florida, where James Weldon Johnson was principal. (A poet and author, Johnson later taught at New York University and then at the historically Black Fisk University).
Between the Coronavirus lockdown and ongoing controversy surrounding the kneeling protests, it’s been a tough year for professional sports. One can certainly appreciate that NFL decision makers are feeling a lot of pressure.
But are they opening the door to even more controversy?
“Lift Every Voice” is an inspiring statement on the struggle for freedom, and I don’t doubt it would resonate with Black football fans. The plan is for it to precede playing of “The Star Spangled Banner” (during which it will be interesting to see if players continue to kneel).
The NFL is free to present any song it chooses, of course, as well as to honor any cause it deems worthy of recognition. But will there be a groundswell of demand that this musical pairing be continued through the season?
If so, will the NFL have put its imprimatur on the idea that the African American community has its own anthem, creating an impression that this song is comparable in significance to the national anthem? If so, I predict we’ll hear calls for playing songs meaningful to other ethnic groups.
(Just for the sake of discussion, the anthem of Ukraine, my ancestral homeland, is “Shche ne vmerla Ukraina” — “Ще не вмерла Українa”: “Glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.”)
Such performances might help to raise awareness of the multi-ethnic heritage that’s characterized our nation from its beginning. I doubt, however, that it would satisfy those who wish to enlist professional sports in highlighting specific Black concerns about police procedures, which is what prompts use of “Lift Every Voice.”
And while such vignettes of ethnic inclusivity might serve as teachable moments, they could also carry more than a hint of the divisiveness that is always a risk of diversity.
I think James Weldon Johnson would see a certain irony in that. While “Lift Every Voice” addresses the painful journey of Black people from slavery to full citizenship and social participation…
“We have come over a way that
With tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path
Through the blood of the slaughtered….”
…the song is an explicit appeal for faith in God, and to a considerable degree, for love of country as well…
“Shadowed beneath Thy hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.”
Our native land — from that perspective it’s a song every American could sing.
On this Fourth of July I’m hoping its use at football games can inspire unity, not division. Let every voice be lifted — together…
God heal our nation.