By Timothy Askew, Ph.D., Clark Atlanta University
In 1976 at the Democratic National Convention in New York, Congresswoman Barbara Jordan offered the keynote address. The title of her speech was, “Who Then Will Speak For the Common Good?” Her resonant voice proclaimed:
Are we to be one people bound together by common spirit sharing in a common endeavor or will we become a divided nation? We must address and master the future together. It can be done if we restore the belief that we share a sense of national community, that we share a common national endeavor. It can be done. Let there be no illusions about the difficulty of forming this kind of a national community. It’s tough, difficult, and not easy. But a spirit of harmony will survive in America only if each of us remembers that we share a common destiny.
Thirty-five years later, Congresswoman Jordan’s words ring and resound in a clarion call for all of us in America to embrace a vision of unity and togetherness that permeates beyond cultural boundaries and even cultural differences. It is this idea of a national and international spirit that I endorse when I think about the brilliant musical composition, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is widely known as the Black National Anthem and whose interesting history I discuss in my new book, Cultural Hegemony and African American Patriotism: An Analysis of the Song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” (www.linusbooks.com). Studying the literary, musical, and cultural history of this song, I offer its stirring words to all America and to the world, not only to African Americans with which the song is generally associated.
As a graduate of Northside High School in 1979, I was fortunate to see the fruits of what Congresswoman Jordan proclaimed that day in 1976. It was a school replete with brilliant minds and creative energies—from students, faculty, and staff, and because of this wonderful energy of unity and altruism, I have fostered Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s message of the beloved community and the national community about which Congresswoman Jordan speaks. I wonder, however, have we really overcome the racial and cultural constraints of the past in the way that we interact with each other. Do we really believe in the kind of color-blind society where all people have the right to celebrate their lives? Are we the national community that gives voice to individual freedom of choice and mutual respect for each other’s personal views and tastes? Do we really celebrate ethnic pluralism and diversity enough, as we look beyond our own myopic racial walls in our respective communities?
As I have gone from place to place discussing my book and my research on “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” what I have seen is that many people believe that celebrating a national spirit means that people should all think that same way, that members of the same racial group must have the same goals, views, and even experiences. Congresswoman Jordan’s and even Dr. King’s version of the beloved community did not suggest that each person stop being an individual and stop having the right for self-expression. But their positive outlook for America is that we lift our voices beyond our own races to understand that we are all a part of a national whole, not just a racial whole, even though we should celebrate and extol our own unique cultural heritage and traditions.
Even as a proud African American whose historical heroes are Mary McLeod Bethune, Harriet Tubman, Malcolm X, Mary Lou Williams, and yes, our beloved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., I acknowledge that black people are not the only folk in history who have suffered. I think of the poor whites in Appalachia who struggle daily to survive; I think of our Latino/Latina brothers and sisters who are also subject to the kind of racial profiling that blacks have experienced. I also think of the Chinese American brothers and sisters whose history and accomplishments are not recognized enough, along with their own vicissitudes as people of color in this country–people who have made invaluable contributions to the American experience. All people in this nation have a history of struggle, and our beloved nation is colored by the blood, sweat, and tears of all members of God’s rainbow who live within our borders. Famous American poet Walt Whitman described this ably in his poem, “I Hear America Singing,” as he proclaimed a democratic, inclusive spirit for this nation, even as people celebrate individuality but also a national symphony of unified voices.
In my research on the beloved universal anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” I offer this song as a symbol of every American voice and of every voice of people in the world who have a history of struggle. As Dr. King proclaimed the beloved community in his “I Have a Dream” speech, so does the song, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” proclaim and symbolize the beloved community for all, not just for blacks as a national anthem, but as a song of identity for all who stretch their hearts in eternal hope for a better tomorrow and for the common good of all citizens of America and the world.
About The Author
Dr. Timothy Almon Askew holds a B.A. degree from Morehouse College, Summa Cum Laude with Phi Beta Kappa distinction as a junior-year inductee. He received the master’s degree at Yale University. Dr. Askew was an NCEA Doctoral Fellow at the University of South Florida. Pursuing an interdisciplinary degree in American Studies and focusing on American Literature and American Music, he received his Ph.D.degree at Emory University and had the distinction of being the first Ph.D. Marshal at the University.
To learn more about Dr. Askew visit his official web site at: http://drtaskew.com.