Joining the movement to address systemic racism in the United States, the country’s National Football League (NFL) now plans to have the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing”– also known as the Black national anthem– performed at each of its Week 1 games this year, the Associated Press reported.
The Black national anthem will be played before the US national anthem “The Star-Spangled Banner”, according to the ESPN-owned The Undefeated.
The move comes amidst a national reckoning on race issues after the death of George Floyd, and also marks a significant change in stance by the top sports league, which in 2018 had sought to punish teams whose players protested by not standing for the US national anthem.
What is the Black national anthem?
Written by the African American poet, scholar, and diplomat James Weldon Johnson in 1900, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first performed as part of a celebration of former president Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. The aspirational hymn expresses a message of hope while addressing the horrors of slavery that African American populations had to endure for centuries its abolition in 1865. In 1919, the prominent civil rights organisation The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) dubbed the spiritual song “the Negro national hymn”.
According to an opinion piece in The New York Times by Pulitzer-winning journalist Brent Staples, since the early decades of the 20th century, when racial segregation was widely implemented in the American South, black communities would play “Lift Every Voice and Sing” instead of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at churches, civic events, and schools as an act of protest against the country’s racist policies.
Criticism of the American national anthem
“The Star-Spangled Banner”, which commemorates the hard-fought American victory over British troops at Baltimore during the War of 1812, was written by Francis Scott Key– a slave-owning lawyer known for his racist views. It was made the country’s national anthem by the US Congress in 1931.
During the War of 1812, thousands of enslaved African Americans had joined hands with the British, who had promised them freedom. Many find the lines in the third stanza of the song– “No refuge could save the hireling and slave/From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave”– to be directed against the enslaved people who fought against the American side. Key, who served as a government lawyer after the war, used his position to defend slavery and attack the abolitionist movement, notes an article in the Smithsonian Magazine.
Over the years, civil rights activists have demonstrated against racism during the playing of the national anthem. At the 1968 Summer Olympics, African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised black-gloved fists and kept them raised until the anthem had finished. Called the “Black Power Salute”, the protest was meant to attract global attention to the dismal conditions facing African Americans in the US.
In 2017, the California chapter of the NAACP asked that the song be removed as the national anthem, calling it “anti-black”.
A change of heart at the NFL
In 2016, American football player Colin Kaepernick protested against police brutality in the US by taking a knee instead of standing for the national anthem, stirring a hornet’s nest. Soon, more American football athletes, as well as those from other sports, began following Kaepernick’s example.
Many conservatives including President Donald Trump railed against the practice, and in May 2018 the NFL stopped in its tracks before introducing a policy to fine teams if their players did not stand for the anthem.
This year, after several prominent athletes pressured the NFL to change its stance after Floyd’s death, the sporting body finally relented, acknowledging it had made mistakes. Trump lashed out at the decision, calling it “disrespecting our country and our flag”. The measures that the NFL has since announced includes pledging $250 million over the next 10 years to combat systemic racism and recognising Juneteenth as an official holiday.
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Lyrics of the Black national anthem
Lift ev’ry 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 has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has 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.
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