Text of Waterloo State Rep. Ras Smith’s speech on the Iowa House floor this Wednesday about Black History Month.
As a child, I wondered why as black people we had the Negro National Anthem.
“Lift every voice and sing, Till earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise, High as the listening 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 a new day begun, Let us march on till victory is won.”
In 1900, James Johnson in celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday first wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” as a poem and was then put to music by his brother John Johnson in 1905. The newly formed hymn gained popularity quickly for it’s story of resilience, and in 1919 was dubbed the Negro National Anthem by the NAACP.
The Black National Anthem continues to be a source of pride and truth as it speaks to the vast injustices’ that the African American community has gone through and continues to face. As a piece of literature, the anthem, is wise. While it harks back to dark days, it’s steady leaning forward into the better days. The progression in the song from 1619 to current times, gives a bitter taste to February. Almost like, America please don’t forget me when I’m gone.
Maybe some part of it is the truth that when Francis Scott Key wrote the “Star Spangled Banner” in 1814, my ancestors were still enduring slavery. To take it a step further, in the third verse, Key’s lyrics reinforce the exclusion, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave.”
While some may argue the intent of this text, the fact is that during this time in America the flag represented the independence of white Americans from the tyranny of Europe and not the torture of slaves at the hands of their masters.
“Stony the road we trod, Bitter the chastening 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 away that with tears has been watered, We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered.”
So, as an adult, the reasons why the Negro National Anthem exist for me are as clear as the North Star. It’s the story of a narrative that as a country we walk with every day, and a sometimes-neglected reality that everything really is about race, sadly by design. Its story is one of an unjustly earned right. An example of resilience and perseverance that must continue today and tomorrow and into the next days. It serves as one of few anchors for the African American community that actually seems fixed in the reality of our story. Not the story that can at times become romanticized by Hollywood or taught in a section of a US history class.
“God of our weary years, God of our silent tears, Thou who has 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.”
For me, sometimes Black History Month is the complex understanding that I will proudly, truthfully and fiercely stand here every morning and place my right hand over my heart and pledge allegiance to a flag that wasn’t meant for me, yet still I will defend it any and every day.
by State Rep. Ras Smith