The first time I heard this song was in church, sung by the congregation. I’d started attending the early service of a local Missionary Baptist Church and then going to the Sunday school and service of my (white) church. My memory is fuzzy, but I’m guessing it was for Black History Month that they sang it.
This song devastated me. I was in a place (called therapy, finally!) where I had finally started to deal with dysfunctional family dynamics and the effects of childhood sexual abuse. My personal road had been stony, I had had hope die a couple different times, and yet I did feel some hope in the present — thanks to Jesus and therapy. The song spoke to my life in a way that most of the songs we were singing in my white religious locations didn’t.
But Emily, you’re appropriating it! Well, maybe — but it felt like they were sharing it with me. As I was seeing myself in that song, I was also seeing the truth (thank you African American lit class from previous semesters) about how true it was for my brothers and sisters in Christ beside me, and boy weren’t my white southern family dynamics all tangled up in that. I’ve read Lillian Smith now and it all makes more sense now but there was a sort of glorious humbling recognition, as the church ladies reached back with tissues, that I was both part of the problem — my heritage helped make that road stony—and also I was welcomed and loved in a place where their cultural experience had space for the particular broken down child of God I was.
As [some parts of] my denomination and I grapple with our history, heritage, and at least from my Facebook, the willingness of some to turn away from the consequences of white supremacy, I keep going back to that precious hour and a half each week when I was with my brothers and sisters in Christ who had no whiteness to prop them up or extra-special theology to cling to, but they knew Jesus and what he had done for them, and that was enough. Their faith embraced me and gave me the grace to depend solely on Jesus, not my theology, my personal righteousness, or my family’s reputation. And though I’m still growing into it, it’s the black Christian tradition that is giving me the courage to speak up and out and truth to power, even to the people my own upbringing begs me to respect with silence.
So this song: I sing it complicit in the conditions that created the need for it. I sing it with and for my African American husband and children, privileged to go with them under the bright star’s gleam. I sing it for myself, praying to be brought even farther on the way towards being an active participant in the justice our church and country needs, knowing that Jesus’s righteousness sustains me in brokenness and covers me in strength.
(note: Some of the guys in the group that sings in the youtube video linked did worship for a while in our church in Alabama!)
here is a link to the lyrics: https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/lift-every-voice-and-sing
ETA: Also I can’t cite anything in particular but I know this piece has been influenced by Jessie Daniels (twitter.com/@jessieNYC)