Why my kids need to know "Lift Every Voice and Sing"

"Move your mouth and act like you know the words! Watermelon!"

Photo by Maya Lane / United Methodist Hymnal, 1989
I was "whisper-yelling" at my 13-year-old through my teeth, a technique I miraculously inherited from a mom. She had mastered the church-mom skill of setting us straight mid-song while maintaining a smile and staying on key.

My daughters and I have had the opportunity to sing "Lift Every Voice and Sing" three times in the past 30 days. Three! (And we're not even midway through Black History Month.)

At church, my kids are the ones just standing there during worship, looking like they're being punished -- even when the lyrics are being displayed karaoke style. Singing in public is not their thing, even though they've both been blessed with beautiful voices. 

It should not have surprised me that they weren't moving their mouths when prompted to stand for "Lift Every Voice and Sing," but for some reason, their not singing sent me into irrational parent zone.

Unfortunately for my little one, her older sister was not sitting with us during the first event, so she had to deal with her crazy NerdyTeacherMom all by herself. 
"I don't know this song," she started.
"Just move your mouth," I barked.
"But ... what's the big deal?" 
"It's the Negro National Anthem! Wa-ter-mel-on."
I learned the "watermelon" trick from Nikki Lerner, musical director at our church. Once at choir rehearsal, she joked that mouthing "watermelon" when you don't know the lyrics would get you through tough spots in a song. (It works. I've tried it.)

My younger daughter moved her mouth a little bit to get me off her back. I saw my 16-year-old across the room simply looking bored. My frustration and embarrassment that my kids didn't know the lyrics to our own anthem made me go all in. I stood up taller and sang louder, as if to prove that somebody in our family knew the words. I made it through the song relatively smoothly (the last two lines of the second verse always seem to trip me up). I prayed that we wouldn't have to sing the third verse, lest that line about the "wine of the world" force me to go mute and mouth fruit. (Why, oh why, is there always one seasoned citizen determined to sing all three verses of the song?)
"What's the big deal?"
I reflected on the after I going loca about pretending to know the words and not embarrassing the family. What is the big deal? Why was I so ashamed that my kids don't know the words? Why do I feel so guilty that I haven't taught them the song? Why am I embarrassed to admit that don't know the entire third verse myself?

Here's why I believe my children need to learn "Lift Every Voice and Sing":
  • My American children need to understand that the song is a significant contribution to American literature that timelessly articulates struggles and hopes of African American people. 
  • My Christian children need to appreciate a poetic work of art that acknowledges the role of God in the survival and future of Black people.
  • My educated children can handle memorizing a poem that will broaden their understanding of history, poetry and vocabulary. (Heck, it's set to music, making it super easy to learn.)
  • My sisterly children can find encouragement in the fascinating biographies of the brothers who wrote the words and music of the song: James Weldon Johnson, prolific writer and civil rights leader; and John Rosamond Johnson, composer, actor and music educator.
  • My Black children should get to experience the feeling of togetherness that comes with singing the Black National Anthem with a roomful of people who understand its significance. I want them to feel that rush of pride in their culture, like the natural high one gets singing a sports chant with other fans after their team has won ("Fly, Eagles, Fly") or doing the Wobble on a crowded dance floor and flashing that "you're working it" smile to the person next to you. 
So how does a NerdyTeacherMom get two teenagers to learn the lyrics to a song published in 1921? 

Several summers ago, I convinced them to memorize "We Real Cool" by Gwendolyn Brooks. It was a short, easy poem that they learned quickly and seemed to enjoy. I know "Lift Every Voice and Sing" won't be as easy.

So far, I've had them repeat each line after me. I did this while styling hair. (I had at least one set of captive ears). Though the exercise was not taken as seriously as I intended, they did, at least, indulge me -- even thought they intentionally sang loudly and off-key. 

My next idea is to find a few renditions that I like (maybe even the hip-hip version I saw on YouTube) and play them ad-nauseam around the house and in the car. (Maybe I'll create a "Lift Every Voice and Sing" playlist on my phone!)

Since my 10th grader can earn extra credit for reciting a poem, I've encouraged her to "kill two birds with one stone" by memorizing and reciting "Life Every Voice and Sing" for her English teacher.

I was also thinking of finding sheet music for the instruments around the house. (I suspect that might be a great waste of printer ink, since getting them to practice instruments is on my list of parental fails.)

My last resort will be cash. I'm thinking $20 should get them to care, but I'll start the bidding lower.


  1. While looking for the sheet music to this hymn, I came across your post. What a gift!! Thank you. (Instead of wa-ter-mel-on, my sister and I would sing "fi-fish, fish fi, fish fi fi.) When your hymnal image popped up in my image search, I caught the UMC hymnal straight off!

    Keep up the great work and blessings on your way.
    Thanks for the "whisper-shouting" smiles.

    A. Oden


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