I, Too, Sing America (2008)

Over a month has passed since jazz vocalist René Marie opened the annual state of the city address in Denver with the third movement of her suite, “Voice of My Beautiful Country.” Although she had been asked to sing the national anthem, her rendition combined the melody of “The Star-Spangled Banner” with the lyrics of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” (a.k.a. “The Negro National Anthem”).

A Denver Post columnist rightly pointed out that the song “provoked a discussion … about what constitutes patriotism, courage, and racism.” And the extensive Q&A on the singer’s own website invites us to consider the substance of these two “sacrosanct” songs when combined. Still, the controversy that followed her performance focused almost exclusively on whether or not Marie should have kept her “switcheroonie” as she calls it, a secret from the mayor’s office.

So I decided to give it another listen:

At the historically black university I attended, we were required to memorize “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the poem that James Weldon Johnson wrote and his brother set to music in honor of Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. We sang it dutifully at special events (along with the Pledge of Allegiance) but after a while, I uh, ahem…well, I stopped paying attention. So I appreciate René Marie’s composition for re-introducing me to the words I recited unthinkingly for so long.

Like the American national anthem, “Lift Every Voice,” honors the struggle for liberty and justice. But it seems to me that where “The Star-Spangled Banner” celebrates a victorious battle against a backdrop of “bombs bursting in air,” Johnson is more tentative and speaks hopefully of battle wounds (of oppression, prejudice, fear) that are not yet healed. We are still marching on in Johnson’s hymn, “till victory is won.” Yet by merging the two anthems, Marie’s song seems to endow the longings of “Lift Every Voice” with a kind of “dawn’s early light” triumph — or is it optimism? — that I hadn’t heard before.

What surprises me the most, though, is how this new version changed my perspective of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (another song that I have been reciting since grade school). When Marie couples the melody with new lyrics, her song exposes a subtext that, in my mind, has always been there, simmering just beneath the surface for those who haven’t always felt welcome in “the land of the free.” Johnson’s words qualify America’s boastful exceptionalism in a way that is thoughtful, dignified, and more fully reflective our nation’s realities.

At the turn of the century, “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” asked us to consider how far African Americans had come: “Have not our weary feet / Come to the place for which our father’s sighed?” In 2008, this question is still relevant, though it has become more complicated I think and, as “Voice of My Beautiful Country” demonstrates, far more interesting. And René Marie is not alone. Just read Langston Hughes’ poem, “I, Too, Sing America” (1925); listen to Jimi Hendrix‘s electrifying take on the anthem in 1969. And have you heard the amazing version by Marvin Gaye in 1983 (featured in the latest Nike commercial)? These are artists whose creative risks redefine patriotism as an ever-changing, always-inclusive enterprise.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Frieda on September 4, 2008 at 3:29 PM

    Claudia,

    I have to first make an observation about myself as I watched the YouTube clip.

    I felt nervous.

    I had to listen to the clip a few times, because the first time my eyes were locked on the men and women standing on that stage watching Rene’ sing the National Negro Anthem. I kept waiting and expecting them to dramatically remove her from the stage. How “dare” this black woman get on stage and somehow “slander” the national anthem???!!! I’m sure there were some in the audience that felt she should be locked up and grilled for her potential Al Qaeda connections!

    In the times that we live in, post 9-11 I guess, for anyone to depart from mainstream-patriotic activities (i.e., refusing to place your hand on your heart while the pledge is recited, not wearing a “lapel-flag-pin”, not approving of this war, saying that you’re proud of your country for the first time in your life) this departure from the normal singing of the National Anthem is sort of a big deal.

    But as Black people, haven’t we always had a strange relationship with patriotism? The American flag has always served as a gaping contradiction to us. A symbol of freedom, yet a symbol of oppression. Recall Frederick Douglass’ important question, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” Yet, we’ve relied on the ideals of the U.S. Constitution, the supreme law of the land, as our sounding board–our home base. We have used it as a weapon to ensure that America keeps it’s promise to us. The promise of freedom and liberty to all. It’s what Thurgood Marshall relied on when arguing in our nation’s courts, for equality and desegregation. It is this promise of America’s dream that Dr. King spoke of, approximately 40 years ago last month. But why must it always be a promise?

    Rene’s version of this song does insert a sense of optimism. But the longing is definitely there. The optimism says, “Hey, maybe this American dream can be ours too.” The longing says that this freedom remains a constant dream, something that we are still striving for.

    Frieda

    Reply

  2. Posted by nickwah22 on September 28, 2008 at 9:46 AM

    I thought it was a beautiful rendition of the song. I definitely think there are still struggles being fought out there, not so much for freedoms and such, but simply for equality.
    When the video came out I didn’t even bother to look for the responses of the average American but I’m sure I could imagine the ignorance. But I appreciate her being so brave as to do this on a public stage.

    Reply

  3. I agree. Brave is definitely the word. And in the process, she stirred up a useful debate. I can only imagine who the city of Denver will invite to sing the anthem next year. Somebody “safe” and noncontroversial like a local girl scout troop? or Barry Manilow? (smile)

    Thanks for the comments!

    Reply

  4. Posted by Cat on October 17, 2008 at 9:38 AM

    I found her singing and her posture so moving. The longing, as Frieda says, and the bravery . . . just the look René Marie has of standing perfectly planted there, her head tilted high to belt out this song that the shuffling people in the back are questioning.

    Thanks for sharing this and for your eloquent words about its significance.

    Reply

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