Like millions of Americans, I found myself glued to my television screen this past Sunday in hopes of witnessing a memorable Super Bowl. From the onset of the event, I got more than I actually expected. At the opening of Super Bowl LV, gospel duo Mary Mary gave a powerful rendition of James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, commonly known in the African American community as the Black National Anthem. I was moved to see the thousands in attendance, and know that millions more were standing, singing, and listening to this most sacred hymn in honor of Black History Month.
For more than one hundred and twenty years, the Black National Anthem has been sung in churches, auditoriums, at family reunions, and during moments of reflection as a source of unity during our difficult journey towards social progress in America. When I heard the first words ring from Mary Mary in harmony, without thinking about it, I stood up on my feet at attention. With my head raised high, I whispered the words aloud. I was compelled to do what I had done every day during morning assembly at my predominantly Black elementary school in Trenton, New Jersey.
In school, after the flag salute and before the morning announcements, all students and teachers would stand and sing the Black National Anthem with pride. Every morning, regardless of who didn’t eat that night and came to school hungry, regardless of what violence was waiting at home, in spite of the general perceptions of African American students and their ability to learn, we stood proudly at 8:00 am with our heads held high and sang.
There was a stillness in the room and throughout the school as our hearts grew heavy for those morning moments. It felt like we were singing to ourselves as a reminder to never forget the struggle for freedom and the price of dignity in the face of adversity. We were singing as a way to motivate our hearts to never give up on any meaningful pursuit in life. We offered ourselves to a sad reality that hope itself is not secure, but must be evoked by remembering our past and those who came before us while committing to the path they envisioned for the future of a people. We stood there in a fear and reverence, hoping that we were in some way worthy to be the benefactors of abolitionists, activists, entrepreneurs, educators, inventors, and explorers who dared to contribute to the American experience in face of injustice and discrimination.
Last Sunday, while singing the Black National Anthem aloud, I felt what I hadn’t experienced in a long time- a sense of belonging and shared purpose. I realized that church burnings and public threats couldn’t keep my forefathers and mothers from the difficult task of raising families, protecting communities, and contributing to the building of our nation. I understood there, on my feet with the heavy heart of hope, that if they could accomplish so much with so little, then I could navigate a pandemic and the challenges of a virtual office space en route to realizing my own dreams of making a difference in the lives of others.
This Black History Month, I remember with pride those morning assemblies with Principal Morgan and the students and teachers at Joyce Kilmer Elementary School. My hope now is that, in some way, the lifting up of my own voice brings honor to the African American elders who came before me and might serve as a source of inspiration for the emerging generation that will stand on the foundation of my generation of Black leaders.