Lessons from an Anthem

Lessons from an Anthem

James Weldon Johnson, poet, essayist, and author of Lift Every Voice and Sing. Johnson’s magisterial work is often referred to as the “Negro National Anthem”. (Photo courtesy of ASCAP.com)

Around 1900, the legendary African-American author and composer James Weldon Johnson penned Lift Every Voice and Sing. He didn’t mean for it to become “The Negro National Anthem” but the song was so powerful and inspirational that it was informally adopted as such. People of all races and religions – from America to Angola to Japan – have been invigorated by it ever since.

Rabbi Stephen Wise, an NAACP member during the 1920s, once wrote that it is “the noblest anthem I have ever heard. It is a great upwelling of prayer from the soul of a race-long wronged but with a faith unbroken.”

One hundred and thirteen years later, I pray that African-Americans would once again be galvanized by the words of this song. In addition to being historic and spiritual, the words of Lift Every Voice and Sing could serve as a guidepost for us as we strive to “Return to Royalty” and be all God created us to be as individuals and as a people.

Let’s look at a few of the lyrics:

 “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us…”

Johnson wrote that the intense oppression we suffered during slavery made our faith in God strong. With nothing else to latch onto, with nothing else to put our hope in, we clung to God. This is biblical, as the children of Israel did the same thing whenever they were oppressed.

Even as individuals, we have a tendency to call on God when times are tough, yet to ignore Him when He prospers us. As a people, we must fight the urge and the temptation to forget God now that we have more money, more political clout, more opportunities, and more education. We have to remember that “every good and perfect gift comes from above” (James 1:17) and that God has not given us these gifts for us to leave Him out.

Keeping our faith in God cannot be mere lip service either, like thanking Him for an award we’ve won for a song with vulgar and ungodly lyrics, or like going to church every Sunday but living like a hellion the rest of the week. We must show our faith in God through our actions and our words – in the way we treat our spouses, in the way we raise our children, in the way we talk to and deal with others. The Lord Jesus Christ showed his love for us through His actions – dying on the cross – so we should show our love for Him through our actions as well.

Johnson also talked of singing about this faith. A song is something that’s recited repeatedly. So in other words, we should consistently remind ourselves of the journey God has brought our people through. Again, this was the case with the Israelites, who constantly taught generation after generation about how God brought them out of Egypt and showed Himself strong to them.

This appears to be something we have lost as a people as much of the younger generation seems cut off from, and oblivious to, our history. When the younger generation not only glosses over the idea that hearing the N-word upsets their elders (many of whom may have seen brutal treatment associated with that word), but actually fights adamantly to defend their usage of it, the importance of our history clearly is not being transferred from old to young.

When a platinum-selling artist who has the ears of millions of youth has no shame in saying, “Shout out to the slave masters. Without them, we’d still be in Africa. We wouldn’t be here to get all this ice and tattoos” – and an even bigger superstar rapper can compare having rough sex to “beat(ing) (it) up like Emmett Till” – we obviously have not adequately passed on a knowledge of, and respect for, our past or our people.

“Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us…”

At the turn of the 20th century, when there were far fewer reasons for Black folks to be optimistic, Johnson wrote about being full of hope. Today, even though we’ve got a Black president, even though we’ve got superstar entertainers and athletes, even though we have prolific individuals in practically every field of endeavor, too many Black children are afraid they’ll die at the hands of another Black person and won’t grow to see adulthood. And more and more young Black males are killing themselves. Throughout slavery and Jim Crow segregation, Blacks had astonishingly low rates of suicide, especially considering the racism and oppression they experienced on a daily basis. But since the 1980s, the suicide rate for Black men has been rising rapidly. Too many of our youth can’t sing a song full of hope.

Hope is a sign of our connection to God, for knowing God and how awesome, powerful and miracle-working He naturally gives us hope. That significant numbers of Black kids don’t think they’ll live past 18 years of age or feel compelled to take their own lives shows that we haven’t adequately shown them how to be connected to God through Jesus Christ.

How could a people less than 40 years out of slavery, who had all the gains of Reconstruction taken away, sing of hope, and yet today, with all the progress we’ve made, many of our children are hopeless? What’s the difference?

Jesus Christ and the church was the hub of the Black community back then. Not so anymore. Johnson sums it up in his final chorus:

“Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,

Lest our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee…”

As a people, let’s restore the place the Lord Jesus Christ once had in our personal lives, in our families, and in our communities. He showed Himself strong to us. In much bleaker times than this, He enabled us to produce newspapers, mutual aid societies, insurance companies and more. He gave us the strength to “keep hope alive” and to endure slavery and to believe that “we shall overcome” against the most tremendous of odds.

Though the Black family had been decimated during slavery, when Christ was our center, roughly 90% of Black children were born into a home where the father was present in 1920. In 1960, that number was 80%. Today, it’s less than 30%. It seems that as our faith in Christ has gotten weaker, we as a people have gotten weaker as well. Let’s learn from the song and stay true to its closing lines:

 “Shadowed beneath Thy hand,

May we forever stand,

True to our God,

True to our native land”

This is not to belittle the systemic, institutional and racist obstacles that still work against us; it’s just to say let’s take responsibility for what we can control, first and foremost by having true and sincere faith in the God Johnson wrote about all those years ago.

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on KingMovement.com. Click here to read the full lyrics of Lift Every Voice and Sing.

What Happens to the News When Corporations Dominate Media?

What Happens to the News When Corporations Dominate Media?

50 Cent at the Daytona 500, where he garnered headlines for a failed attempt to kiss ESPN sportscaster Erin Andrews. Andrews is a spokesperson for SK Energy, the energy drink company cofounded by 50 Cent. (Photo Credit: Marc Serota/Newscom).

Recently it was announced that Erin Andrews, a prominent ESPN sportscaster, is the newest spokesperson for an energy drink owned by rapper and entrepreneur 50 Cent. Days before the announcement, Andrews and 50 Cent made the news during coverage of the Daytona 500. While Andrews was scrambling live on air for an interview with Danica Patrick, the popular female driver on the racecar circuit, Andrews just happened to bump into 50 Cent, who is apparently a motorsports fan as well. The rapper (I respect his marketing genius) attempted to kiss Andrews, but she turned away. The video of the “non kiss” went viral across the Web, garnering substantial attention on social media. In a Huffington Post article posted after her spokesperson deal announcement, Andrews explained that the incident “was my fault,” while mentioning – yet again – the energy drink. Annual spending on energy drinks is estimated at $2.3 billion and it is the fastest growing segment of the soft drink industry.

There’s nothing wrong with journalists promoting a product if it falls outside of their coverage beat and they disclose their relationship to it. Andrews disclosed her relationship to SK Energy after the “non kiss” news event. If someone wants me to pitch a brand, I’ll take the check, as long as I believe in the product. But pitching can be a problem if it involves manufactured news.

Product placement in journalism is becoming more and more of an issue as large corporations take over news organizations and the Internet continues to disrupt traditional revenue models. TV news anchors have been on air live sipping iced coffee paid and provided for by the brand. In 1999, The Los Angeles Times was ripped for a scandal over its revenue sharing agreement with the Staples Center in which part of the deal was to publish a 168-page supplement.

Product placement can erode journalism’s critical role as the defender of the public trust. Soon, we may not be able to tell if what we’re consuming is objective news or a marketing script. During the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, CNN reporters commented on how many people were taking photos with a particular brand of mobile phone and its compatible tablet. Innocent statements? Maybe, but then again CNN anchor Don Lemon has been very giddy on twitter and elsewhere about his affinity for the same brand.

If the people can’t trust the press to deliver real straight news, then whom can they trust? This is where the Church can do some good. The First Amendment to the United States Constitution reads:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

There’s a reason why the Founders put the Church and the press in this clause, which is at the heart of what keeps Americans free. The Church and the press are two important institutions that deal with our minds. How we think determines what we do. If you can control a person’s thoughts, you can control his life. As mega corporations gain more control of the media, through ownership and advertising, and use that power to influence and control the government through lobbying and elections, we will be living within a very different America.

Preachers often rail against the media from the pulpit, yet underutilize the media’s power on behalf of the Kingdom. When people distrust the information they’re getting in the world, we must ask: can they honestly turn to your church for the truth? Congregations can learn something from Andrews and 50 Cent and become more media savvy.

Jeremy Lin and the Perils of Racial Progress

Jeremy Lin and the Perils of Racial Progress

HEAD CASES: Linsanity reigns as fans hold up faces of the New York Knicks's sudden sensation Jeremy Lin during a Feb. 15 game at Madison Square Garden. (Photo: John Angelillo/Newscom)

After a Friday-night defeat, the frenzy surrounding the New York Knicks’ sudden superstar Jeremy Lin threatened to settle down just a little after Lin’s nine turnovers helped end his team’s seven-game win streak. But then Lin went out on Sunday afternoon and tallied 28 points and a career-high 14 assists to help take down the defending NBA champion Dallas Mavericks and we were right back to fever-pitched “Linsanity.”

Suddenly, Jeremy Lin has become that kind of sports phenomenon that broadcasters adore — the exciting, charismatic athlete that even casual sports fans must tune in to watch. Indeed, the causal fans are confirming what hardcore NBA junkies have known for a while now — this Jeremy Lin is something else.

Lin, for those comfortably ensconced beneath a rock, is not only the first Asian American bona fide star in the NBA, but the hottest name in sports right now.

AERIAL LIN-PACT: Lin shoots over Sacramento Kings guard Isaiah Thomas. (Photo: Mike Segar/Newscom)

After enduring plenty of bench-warming on his third team in two years, Lin finally got his number called by Knicks coach Mike D’Antoni on February 6, and delivered a breakout performance — 25 points and seven assists to lead New York to victory. Since then, he’s continued to string together impressive performances as a starter, and until that inevitable loss on Friday night, the Knicks rode Lin’s breakout heroics back to NBA respectability after a long search for team identity.

This would be impressive on any NBA team. But by playing with such passion and fire in a media-saturated environment like New York, Jeremy Lin has captured the attention of fans, players and celebrities across the nation, garnering an undeniably palpable buzz. He’s showing up not only on ESPN Sportscenter, but on The Colbert Report and the Huffington Post.

How big is Jeremy Lin right now? He got a standing ovation after hitting a game-winning three-pointer — by fans of the opposing team.

Lin-sane reactions

It’s no wonder that Lin has been called the Taiwanese Tim Tebow — on top of all the basketball hype, Jeremy Lin has taken a public stand as a Christian. He’s spoken at length about his faith in God and how it fuels him as a player and as a person. He even gave a shout out to gospel rapper Lecrae when asked about his favorite music.

And yet, I can’t help but wince, just a little bit, when I hear all of this effusive praise. I worry a little for Jeremy Lin, and it has little to do with basketball.

Lin’s ascent into the spotlight reminds me of another popular ball-playing Harvard graduate-turned-rock-star. Like J-Lin, our 44th president burst on the scene by making a big splash — instead of February at MSG in 2012, it was July at the DNC in 2004.

And just like Barack Obama in 2008, Lin is attracting, along with the waves of adulation, an undertow of bitter resentment. A national sportswriter made a tasteless putdown regarding his sexuality. Boxer Floyd Mayweather asserted via Twitter that if Lin were Black, he would not be getting so much hype. And even though that smacks of more than a little jealousy, and probably resonates with a history of racial hostility between Blacks and Asians, there is a grain of truth there. Would there be this much hype for a non-Asian player? If he were White, maybe. If he were Black, probably not.

Then there was the offensive and racially charged headline used by ESPN after the Knicks’ Friday loss that eventually led to the firing of one of the sports networks employees and the suspension of another. Even if we wanted to play down Lin’s ethnic background and simply appreciate him as a good basketball player, we cannot. One cannot log a significant racial milestone in this nation without stirring up a little drama.

The fact is, Jeremy Lin is Asian, and that matters a lot. It matters to other Asian Americans, and it matters to Blacks. (It even matters to white Americans, though they might not say it.)

Lin and the politics of identity

Watching Lin as a Black man gives me a little bit of insight into what it might have felt like watching Obama as a White person in 2008. See, competition is often a zero-sum game, where one person cannot win unless another person loses. So J-Lin’s staggering celebrity touches a place of insecurity for some Black folks, because it feels like an intrusion into a place of previously held dominance. Larry Wilmore of Jon Stewart’s Daily Show provides an over-the-top but thought-provoking commentary on the issue. Watch it below:

The unspoken assumption is that Asians are supposed to beat you with a calculator, not a crossover. Sorta like a decade ago when Tiger Woods started tearing up golf courses left and right, and all of the White golfers who never expected that kind of performance from someone so young and non-White were more than a little miffed. When someone comes in and violates all of your assumptions, it can be a little disconcerting.

And that’s part of the reason why I want folks to slow down a little on the Linsanity hype train. It’s not because I don’t think he’s a good player. He’s clearly a very good player, and he has a chance to become great. But in the group-centered ethic of Asian American culture, Lin must know, on some level, that he is representing Asian Americans every time he steps on the court. The brighter the lights, the bigger the pressure. I know that Jeremy Lin doesn’t want to be seen as simply a marketing ploy or a gimmick, but the further out-of-proportion the hype gets from reality, the more he looks like exactly that.

I worry that Lin will be fed into the grinder of 21st century mass media, where we put our celebrities on pedestals just so we can knock them down when they displease us.

And the pedestal is much higher for a professing Christian.

Cult of Christian celebrity

Seems like every time there’s a high-profile young person with a Christian persona, the gatekeepers of the Christian establishment trot them out in front of the impressionable even-younger people, so that they’ll have a good role model. So I imagine that Jeremy Lin will soon have a publicist. If that person is good at her job, she’ll have him at conferences, concert appearances, and basketball camps throughout the offseason.

None of those things are wrong, of course, but I just hope he also has someone else in his life screening some of that stuff out, so that he can continue to work on his game and develop as a person. If sports is the ultimate reality TV, then Jeremy Lin deserves more than to become the next Christian reality TV star.

After all, the last NBA player that I remember having so public a faith-based persona when he entered the league was Dwight Howard. And that reputation has since taken a beating, not only for the hysteria surrounding his trade demands, but for fathering several children out of wedlock.

I hope that Jeremy Lin can be more than a bright star who flames out too soon. But part of what he’ll be needing to accomplish that is a little more time — to work on his game, and to find more ways to meaningfully engage his eager public. After yesterday’s game, he politely pleaded with the media to respect the privacy of his family in Taiwan who are apparently being bombarded with attention in the wake of Lin’s success. So if you really want to support him, the best thing you can give him right now is give him breathing room to play basketball without the added weight of being the latest Christian celebrity or the shining representative of all Asian Americans.

Just don’t give him too much room, ’cause I hear he’s getting pretty good from distance.