Askew’s book raises some intriguing questions about the song’s origins, including the previously undisputed notion that it was written for and first performed at a Lincoln’s Birthday celebration. But what’s sure to spark conversation is Askew’s contention that calling a song the black national anthem “can be construed as racially separatist and divisive.”
We spoke with Askew, who’ll turn 49 on the day the book is published.
Q: When do you first remember hearing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”?
A: When I was singing in the Morehouse Glee Club. I went to a predominantly black elementary school, but we didn’t sing it. I had heard of it as an African American, but I didn’t know what it meant. In my senior year, [then-director] Wendell Whalum said we were going to be singing this song on one of the glee club tours. He said this song was written for a Lincoln Day program and I thought, “Hmm, how interesting.”
Q: I’ll say. You pursued a master’s in African American studies at Yale, but also took courses in music and literature. How did you end up getting academically hooked on this one song for more than 25 years?
A: Another grad student at Yale, Richard Powell [now a professor at Duke University], said, “You know, James Weldon Johnson did literature and music too. We have all his papers here, why don’t you check out if they have anything on ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing.’ ” ... I just became curious to see what I could find. So, every night after classes, I just went through over 700 boxes and folders. Most nights, I would be by myself and as I started reading his letters and touching the pencil and pen markings, I kind of felt his presence. There was something that just said, “You have to finish this project,” so I just kept going and going. I was looking for anything that said anything about “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”
Q: Did your thesis at Yale sow the seeds for some of the more provocative material in this new book?
A: The focus of that [thesis] was the Victorian influences on James Weldon Johnson and how ironic that is to have produced the song. ... There are times in my book where I’m almost kind of spanking his hand. I feel that he was a Renaissance man — he was brilliant, he was wonderful — but he was also somewhat elitist. I think it’s kind of ironic that this song would grow out of elite European cultural traditions and be known as a black national anthem.
Q: Johnson himself referred in writing to the song as a hymn. But you believe there was an effort by black leaders early on to turn it into something more — an anthem or official song. Why?
A: What they meant to do was to give black people hope. They were giving them hope collectively because there was racism, lynching, it was a time of overt segregation. And I certainly understand that. This was a time when such a song could inspire — even now as an African American, it inspires me when I sing it. [But] many races of people have come to this song and said, “This speaks to me.”
Q: Indeed, Clark Atlanta is a traditional black college. But when you started teaching there after Yale, you found some students disagreed with the notion of a separate anthem, right?
A: Some students would say, “I’m glad there’s an African American national anthem because some people need a symbol to feel proud.” Then other students said, “Not, this is promoting kind of the same racism that other people have accused white people of doing.”
Q: What about white students? Did any of them have strong feelings about it one way or the other?
A: A couple of my students said, “Doc, I have black friendships. I love this school, and I feel that I should be a part of this as well. So why is it called the black national anthem?” I even have black students saying the same thing, you’re separating yourselves by this title. That’s what I have argued: It’s the title that restricts the acceptance of things, not the words. The song is beautiful.
Q: So you — the Morehouse music major — like it, just not as an “anthem,” per se?
A: Personally, I think that it does promote racial separatism to call any cultural symbol a national anthem when we have a national anthem. I’m a black person, and I love black culture, but I believe that we are one America and that we should think of ourselves as Americans. Calling this song an African-American song of identity is one thing, but saying it’s a black national anthem is another thing that creates problems that can be perceived as separatist or racist.
Q: Given the revered status of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” do you expect some people to be critical of you and your book?
A: There are people who are going to say, “How dare you? This is the black national anthem, you’re an Uncle Tom and you shouldn’t criticize anything black.” I talk about that in the book, [that] we need to talk about this. As wonderful as this song is — and it is for me the most appropriate African-American culture song — I’m not going to push this on someone and say, “This is your song. This is what you have to believe.”
Q: But you think it’s important to write and talk about anyway?
A: Symbols have to change because it’s a new America. I’m an African American. I mean, I know what it’s like to walk down a street and have people put their car [locks] down. So, of course, I’m not saying that [doesn’t exist]. But when will America get better? It’s only going to get better when we ascribe to something greater than our limitations. Saying something is a black national anthem will create divisiveness that is unnecessary when we should all be striving for something greater.
Q: What’s next?
A: I’d like to do a book on national anthems and their significance. The politics surrounding them.
“Cultural Hegemony and African American Patriotism: An Analysis of the Song, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’ ” by Timothy Askew. (Linus Books, $35) www.linusbooks.com.