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Black Artists You Should Know: James Weldon Johnson

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Some people are defined by a singular skill or specific contribution to society. Then there are those of us who have so much to give, their impact can be found across multiple disciplines touch a wide away of groups and people. Such is the case with composer, playwright, teacher, author, and poet James Weldon Johnson.

Sonnet by James Weldon Johnson:

My heart be brave, and do not falter so,   
Nor utter more that deep, despairing wail.   
Thy way is very dark and drear I know,   
But do not let thy strength and courage fail;   
For certain as the raven-winged night
Is followed by the bright and blushing morn,   
Thy coming morrow will be clear and bright;   
’Tis darkest when the night is furthest worn.   
Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds,   
And do not in thine own gross darkness grope,   
Rise up, and casting off thy hind’ring shrouds,   
Cling thou to this, and ever inspiring hope: 
   Tho’ thick the battle and tho’ fierce the fight, 
   There is a power making for the right.

Originally intending to escape the entrenched racism of the South, Weldon Johnson as a young man moved to New York City to pursue a career in musical theater. Ever passionate to contribute the enrichment of the black community, by the end of his life, his contributions included civil rights activist as head of the NAACP, an anthologist, author and playwright, as well as an educator and US diplomat for the President to Venezuela.

Most people recognize Weldon Johnson as the writer of Lift Every Voice and Sing. What originally started as a celebratory piece for the anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth took on a meaning and popularity of its own, and thus - with the adoption of Lift Every Voice by the NAACP - the Negro National Anthem was born. James Weldon Johnson is a powerful example of community minded musicianship and how we as artists can push for social justice and change in our communities.

As a child, I would attend seminars and masterclasses with a mentor who was a singer. Every event was preceded by the singing of the Negro National Anthem. All those in attendance knew the words and sang in solidarity and unison. However, outside of these spaces that I was exposed to - other churches my congregation would visit, other community gatherings - it was not as certain a surety that those in attendance, particularly the younger crowd, would know the Anthem.

Seychelle and I asked colleague and composer Anthony R. Green to arrange Lift Every Voice for us last year our debut performance as a duo in Quincy, MA. We feel it is just as important as the national anthem to know and share with audiences. You'll find the lyrics underneath the video below. The last verse is my favorite. For, in the words of John Lewis: “the civil rights movement was based on faith. Many of us who were participants in this movement saw our involvement as an extension of our faith. We saw ourselves doing the work of the Almighty. Segregation and racial discrimination were not in keeping with our faith, so we had to do something.”

 

Lift every voice and sing,
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the
list’ning 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
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,
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.