"What world am I living in?"
This is the question I started asking myself more and more during Black History Month. That's when I discovered that some school systems stopped adding the Black National Anthem to school curriculum, and many parents could care less about it. But how I discovered it upset me.
It was in February more than six years ago when I was talking to my co-worker's child about what she was learning in school. I ended up asking her what songs her school was teaching her during Black History Month. When I was in school my teachers would add the Black National Anthem to our curriculum, and for some reason I fully expected this to still be a "thing" for kid's today.
Ha! She turned and said to me, "We're not learning any Black History songs, Miss Joy."
I was in disbelief. So I asked her, "Not even the Black National Anthem?" I had to make sure I heard her correctly.
But she repeated what she said, and her mom backed her up. In that moment, I sort of expected my co-worker to at least give her daughter a few words about the Black National Anthem, maybe a lyric, or something.
Instead she shrugged her shoulders and said, "Well they don't teach that stuff in her school," then she walked away with her daughter. I'm assuming she left because she already knew that I was about to bust out a few Black National Anthem bars on her.
But the sad part came later that day when I posted about my encounter with my co-worker on Facebook. Parents of all colors were hopping on my thread telling me that they had never heard of the Black National Anthem, and they really did not care to know it either. Some, who knew the Black National Anthem by heart, tried to make excuses for not teaching their kids the song. You know the, "Why do we have a Black National Anthem anyway?" excuse.
Every time I hear people utter those words, I feel my skin crawl. There are parents of all races struggling to stay afloat in today's tumultuous political and economic climate, and their children are watching them go through hell and back. Why wouldn't any parent want their child to understand that struggle is temporary by teaching them a simple song that has carried a generation of oppressed people through more than 115 years of adversity?
Let me paint this picture for you: At the end of the 19th century when the words to the Black National Anthem (then known as a poem called "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing") were penned, the United States was not the happiest place on Earth for a lot of people, including minorities.
Americans were still recovering from the thousands of lives lost in battle during the Civil War and the thousands of lost to infection during 1898's Spanish American War.
To put it in perspective, a mother of four could expect one of her children to die by the age of five.
Women, minorities, and the disabled weren't guaranteed the same educational opportunities as white men. In fact, you would be more likely to find a child working in factories and fields than sitting in a classroom.
Families didn't have indoor plumbing, and it would be several years before the Wright Brothers first took flight, and the Model T car was introduced as new technological advancements.
Things were tough for everyone at the end of the 19th century, but it was like walking through the pits of hell for blacks. Even though slavery was abolished in 1865, and Congress ratified the 15th amendment allowing blacks the right to vote in 1869, blacks were treated like subhuman distractions. How?
Segregation was the legal way of keeping us under the control of local and state governments that didn't really want us in the United States, unless we were working for free.
Terror groups kept us fearing for our lives by burning crosses on our property, and threatening us with lynching. In 1899, 85 black people were lynched, in comparison to 21 white people. In 1900, the number of white people lynched that year plummeted to nine, while the number of black people lynched increased to 106.
So yeah, things were pretty screwed up for everyone, and especially for black people.
Legendary poet and educator James Weldon Johnson, who was then a principal of the segregated Stanton School in Jacksonville, Fla., took all of this into account as he penned the words to "Life Ev'ry Voice". John Rosamond Johnson also took this into consideration as he set his brother's poem to music.
Despite the harsh climate blacks faced, James still had to walk into Stanton School every day and assure his children that even though the world was not welcoming of them, they still had the power to change it. So he taught them a song about adversity, perseverance, and strength.
On February 12, 1900, in honor of late President Lincoln's Birthday, 500 Stanton School children, all direct descendants of slaves, sang James' song in front of Booker T. Washington with high hopes and big voices.
Lift ev'ry voice and sing,
'Til 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 'til victory is won.
Today, learning the song is more necessary than ever for all people. It teaches children to embrace pride and resilience, while giving honor to their ancestors, who watched their parents go through hell and back just to stay afloat - similar to what many parents and children experience today.
Teaching the song to school children allows teachers to follow in the footsteps of a legendary educator who, just like them, had to find a way to tell children that despite their circumstances, they have the power to change the world.
This song is about fighting through your darkest hour, which is a value that nearly all parents teach to their kids. As far as I'm concerned, there is absolutely no reason why a child or an adult should not know both the National Anthem and the Black National Anthem - one teaches you to stay vigilant, while the other gives you lessons in hope and faith. That is what we want for this country, and that's especially what we want for ourselves.
Take a listen to an amazing rendition of the Black National Anthem below.