July 3, 2008

Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing

Jazz singer Rene Marie was asked to sing the national anthem at the "State of the City" speech in Denver. Instead, she sang a song called "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing." I suppose I just plain can't pretend to be in touch with the African-American spiritual experience. I'd never heard this before:

It sounds like of like "The Star-Spangled Banner" in places, and Ms. Marie is obviously a very talented singer. Lyrically, it's substantially more ambiguous -- it clearly refers to the experiences of slavery and living under Jim Crow laws. To its credit, it also makes clear that America is worthy of loyalty and respect and love despite those flaws in its history, and I think it's a worthy contribution to American arts. For that reason, "Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing" is sometimes called the "Black National Anthem." The obvious riposte to that is that there should be a single national anthem for all Americans.

After all, if she was supposed to sing the official national anthem, "The Star-Spangled Banner," then that's ultimately what Ms. Marie should have sung. That's what she promised to do when she was asked to sing at the event, and singing the national anthem at a public event is supposed to be an honor and not a platform for political speech. I happen to find the national anthem a rather moving piece of music, both for the moment in history it captures and its expression of patriotism and loyalty in the face of adversity. These are noble and powerful sentiments and they are for everyone.

Of course, if Ms. Marie is an artist, and she obviously is, then she may see her role as occasionally not doing what is expected but instead doing something to provoke a reaction and discussion. If so, she's succeeded marvelously. This is very far from the biggest deal facing the nation at the moment, but it is an interesting debate. My nationalism is not offended by this, and I do not doubt Ms. Marie's patriotism, either. A part of me kind of admires her for being willing to throw a grenade like this, because that is an artist's role in society.

"Lift Ev'ry Voice And Sing" is a beautiful song. But so is "The Star-Spangled Banner."

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