Why EVERYONE Needs to Learn the Black National Anthem

"You are what you have to defend, because it doesn't matter that I'm 19 percent European, 81 percent African. In America, I have to deal with the problems that black people in America deal with. I have the struggles and challenges that black people in America have."
-Don Cheadle

I'm not sure which was worse, this:

Or this:

Or this:

But hey, at least they tried.

Me: "Oh, and at some point, you need to learn the Black National Anthem. But today you can just mouth the word 'watermelon'."
My Husband: "What?"
Me: "My chorus teacher taught us that if we ever forgot the words to a song, to just mouth the word 'watermelon' to make it look like we were still singing."

Hubs: "I'm not doing that. I'm just not going to sing. I don't know the song because I'm not part of 'the nation'."
Me: "Well, you are by marriage. See, why do people have such a hard time stepping outside of their comfort zones?  Do you think the Mayor of New York gets on camera and butchers Spanish because he thinks he's Latino or feels some sense of solidarity with Puerto Ricans?! No. He's learned that if you can speak someone else's language or find a sense of connection or common ground, that you have access to that person's life in a way that you might not otherwise have."

Funny how the things I find most useful as an adult have nothing to do with academics or the classroom (like learning the Electric Slide in elementary school and mastering the detection of weed as a Resident Advisor).  At the time, I took it for granted, but in hindsight I appreciate learning the Black National Anthem (Lift E'vry Voice and Sing) during my childhood and early adulthood.  In college, each of our Black Student Movement meetings opened with the singing of Lift E'vry Voice.  Comes in handy during Black History Month and the Martin Luther King Holiday.

Now, Martin Luther King Jr. is one of the few people who can get me out of bed before 8:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning. And this particular morning my husband and I were heading over the (semi-frozen) Charles River into Cambridge for the 26th Annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Breakfast hosted by the Cambridge Branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).  Rather than hold the breakfast during the actual holiday earlier in the month, the Cambridge NAACP chose to hold its breakfast towards the end of January as a way to usher in Black History Month.  Although the cab ride was all of five minutes and less than a mile away, the two cities are worlds apart.

As we settled at our table, my husband and I noted that the singing of the Black National Anthem wasn't listed in the program.  But I knew that didn't mean a whole lot.  And sure enough, after a short processional and the seating of the honored guests, we all rose and the pianist played the musical intro for Lift E'vry Voice.  While I'm sure many of the attendees used the time to reflect on the deep meaning of James Weldon Johnson's poetry and the continued struggle for freedom, justice, and equality, I was getting a good laugh.  The head table guests were mostly local, elected politicians who happened to be white, and didn't know the words to the song.  Some shifted uncomfortably, avoiding eye contact with the crowd by any means necessary, and I'd bet money that at least one was praying "Oh God please let them only sing the first verse and not all three!"

Earlier, when I insisted that my husband learn the Black National Anthem, I found it difficult to articulate a thought better suited for first-hand experience.  As we prepared to leave a friend's home after a dinner party, we met a another guest--a young woman--who happened to be Nigerian.  My husband loves the reaction he gets from other Nigerians when he tells them about his "Nigerian roots" (i.e. ME and my family), so we chatted for a bit, answering her questions about how long we'd been married, what our wedding and reception was like, etc.  After about ten minutes I could tell she was in utter shock  and disbelief that this white dude in Boston was telling her about his engagement ceremony, the few words of Yoruba (like three) he speaks and understands, how he prostrates to his in-laws, and eats pounded yam WITH HIS HANDS.  And by the end of the night, my husband had earned yet another nickname: "The White Nigerian."  The point I was trying to make earlier that morning wasn't that if my husband learned the Black National Anthem that he'd suddenly reach racial nirvana and become this enlightened individual with "street cred."  Rather, I was thinking about the power of challenging assumptions.  For whatever reason, when we connect with others in the ways they least expect, little by little, the walls begin to come down.


  1. My, I feel rather sheepish-- I have no inkling of the what the words to the Black national anthem are. In my defense, I'm a millenial-- 18 years old, and I grew up in a mostly white suburb for 15 years.

    ...yeah, my family's not exactly plugged-in, ethnicity wise. I'm the daughter of a programmer and a soon-to-be psychiatrist.

    But I'm seeing I should definitely learn the words. And the last half of the article, the bit about your hubby being "the white nigerian"-- thank you so much for that!

    I've been driving my mom crazy with all my talk about BWWM relationships, and I couldn't quite get why it was so important, couldn't figure out the words for it. I've been grasping for a way to put it in words, and you made me realize it.

    I like challenging assumptions! You're right, walls definitely come crashing down when you no longer fit in people's "boxes". As a college freshman, I've gotten quite a few stares...walking around with acid guitar blasting from my earbuds and the book "don't bring home a white boy" tucked under my arm. Definitely outside people's frame of mind, and I relish every minute of it.

    Love your blog, by the way! :D

  2. @Amia
    Thanks so much for reading and for your comments.
    No need to feel sheepish. Clearly Bill Clinton found himself in a similar position at some point in time, but I'm sure he figured it out with a little help from his friends and the internet.

  3. "Well, you are by marriage."

    Actually he's not. He's a part of the family that you've created with him, but that's where the line is drawn. He's not Black so please don't try and force him to be. This says more about you than it does him.

    He wasn't African or Black when you married him, but now you want him to be? It's perplexing. What customs of HIS heritage did you adopt?

  4. @Seraph
    Thanks for reading and commenting. I agree with you, it does say more about me since I was quoting myself.

    To your first question: No.
    To your second question: Quite a few.

  5. @Tinu

    Ah, how I wish I got that joke. But I was born the year Clinton was sworn in, and 7 by the time he was out of office...not exactly a good recollection of politics, there.

    What I can say is I distinctly remember more toys, snack food, and allowances being around during the Clinton days. Golden days of America's checkbook, methinks.

    Anywho-- Clinton sang (or tried to sing)the Black national anthem? Or am I further mangling the joke? XD

  6. I have concerns about the label "Black National Anthem", as if there was a Black Nation in America, separated from the rest of the americans of other ethnicities. I found this article about a black professor who shares this opinion:
    I'm not american, nor black, but i can see myself singing that song and sharing the vibe of it. Any human being with sympathetic feelings can relate to the struggles of people that has being historicaly discriminated and mistreated in one country because of their race, and the hard path they have had to make to claim to be full citizens with equal rights, etc. I mean, right after the earthquake in Japan, I listened to the Japanese National Anthem and I got really emotional, imagining the suffer of all that people, and the struggles, all that noble and inspiring things, but that doesn't make me feel japanese, just closer to them, as human beings they are like me.
    I think if one believes in integration of races and not separatism, one should drop the word "National" out. "Black Anthem" would be OK for me.

  7. Hi Ivan (sorry, I couldn't figure out how to add the accento)
    Thanks for your comments. I never really thought of it that way, that is, the label "Black National Anthem" inferring that there is a separate black nation. I presumed that it meant national as is inclusive of all black people in America. But I understand where you're coming from.
    Personally, I think the tension between a collective sense of national identity and individual sense of ethnic and racial identity is a healthy one and stems from our nation's history and even our motto "E pluribus unum," "Out of many one." I have no issue with referencing an anthem as "Black National" as I have no issue with Chinatown, Little Italy, or Irish Heritage Clubs.