A 1900 Poem, A 1959 Play And A 1960 Book

A special birthday celebration in Jacksonville, Florida was being planned to honor President Abraham Lincoln on February 12, 1900.  Principal James Weldon Johnson of the Stanton School was asked to give a speech.

This young man chose not to write an oratory.  He wrote a poem about the plight of the African-Americans in 1900 America.

His brother John took the poem and set it to music.  The name of the poem/song was “Lift Every Voice and Sing.

The poem/song resonated with the children and adults.  It became a hymn of hope that the “harmonies of liberty” would usher in a new day of the rising sun where victory is finally won.

The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) officially chose Lift Every Voice and Sing as their song of purpose and hope.

Horace Julian Bond, former chair of NAACP, said, “When people stand and sing it, you just feel a connectedness with the song, with all the people who’ve sung it on numerous occasions, happy and sad over the 100 years before.”

Until all Americans are judged fairly, reside in safe housing, get a good education, do meaningful work for adequate pay, have sufficient healthcare, and die a timely death unhurried by racial bigotry, segregation, and discrimination, concerned people must continue to sing Johnson’s song and pursue King’s dream.”  Dr. George Henderson, Professor Emeritus, University of Oklahoma

In 1959 Lorraine Vivian Hansberry’s play A Raisin in the Sun finally made its torturous way to Broadway.  It told the story of a black family who bought a house in a white neighborhood in Chicago and the fallout which resulted. However, based in part on the Hansberry’s own struggles and court case, the joys, hopes and fears of a black family was portrayed to audience night after night.

It was the basis of this family trauma which led Lorraine to write her brilliant yet poignant play, A Raisin In The Sun.  It debuted at the Ethel Barrymore Theater on March 11, 1959.  It was the first play on Broadway that was written and directed by African-Americans. Lorraine won the New York Critics’ Circle’s honor.  By so doing Lorraine became the youngest person and the first black playwright to win the award.

It was nominated for 4 Tony Awards but lost to The Miracle Worker for best play.  Columbia Pictures would have Lorraine write the screenplay for the film version.

She oversaw a film version of her play in 1961.  It was snubbed by the Oscars.

Unfortunately, pancreatic cancer would claim this young woman.  Like Langston Hughes wrote in his poem Harlem many years before, “What happens to a dream deferred?  Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun?” Lorraine’s death was like a raisin in the sun.

Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird was published in 1960.  An innocent black man is accused of raping a white woman and found guilty by the jury despite the evidence of his innocence.  It showed how the black community had to deal with a hostile environment and the grief which comes when the innocence of life is shattered by racial injustice and hate.

In many ways the book reflects what Lee observed growing up in the small town of Monroeville, Alabama (Southwest Alabama) in the 1930s.  Her father was a lawyer and in many ways the book recounts her childhood.

The Pulitzer Prize winning book was made into an Oscar winning movie.  Her story reached a new audience in all parts of the country in 1962 as the movie depicted the loss of innocence in a small town and the death of one falsely accused.

You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… Until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

These pieces are slices of life.  They show moments of frustration, fear, sadness, joy and hope.

Without hope what is there?  To understand a fellow human on this planet traversing the cosmos is a rarity like an exquisite sapphire.  The beauty of understanding removes the layers of preconceived notations and prejudices.

Like my maternal grandmother once said, “When you share a glass of cool water or sit across the supper table from your neighbor, you realize how much you share in common—you pray, eat, talk and laugh.  Differences in belief, skin color, and social station don’t seem that important over a mess of greens and ham hocks.”

G. D. Williams       © 2013

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References:

Lift Every Voice and Sing

James Weldon Johnson (June 17, 1871 – June 26, 1938)

John Rosamond Johnson (August 11, 1873—November 11, 1954)

Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise,
High as the listening skies,

Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on till victory is won.

Stony the road we trod,
Bitter the chastening rod,
Felt in the day that hope unborn had died;
Yet with a steady beat,
Have not our weary feet,

Come to the place on which our fathers sighed?
We have come over a way that with tears has been watered,
We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered,

Out from the gloomy past, till now we stand at last
Where the white gleam of our star is cast.
God of our weary years,
God of our silent tears,
Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;
Thou who has by thy might,
Led us into the light,
Keep us forever in the path, we pray
Lest our feet stray form the places, our God, where we met thee,
Least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee,
Shadowed beneath the hand,
May we forever stand,
True to our God,
True to our native land.

http://www.cyberhymnal.org/htm/l/i/liftevry.htm

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MyS3HPInHtI

http://www.npr.org/programs/morning/features/patc/liftvoice/

http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15588

http://www.cnn.com/2010/LIVING/07/21/black.national.anthem/index.html

http://lcweb2.loc.gov/diglib/ihas/loc.natlib.ihas.200038845/default.html

http://www.songofamerica.net/cgi-bin/iowa/composer/80.html

Horace Julian Bond (January 14, 1940-)

http://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/julian-bond-b-1940

Lorraine Vivian Hansberry (May 19, 1930 – January 12, 1965)

https://lochgarry.wordpress.com/2013/01/14/a-remarkable-woman-lorraine-vivian-hansberry/

Langston Hughes (February 1, 1902 – May 22, 1967)

https://lochgarry.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/refugees-in-america/

Nelle Harper Lee (April 28, 1926-)

http://www.biography.com/people/harper-lee-9377021

http://www.southernliterarytrail.org/monroeville.html

Dr. George Henderson

http://www.ou.edu/cas/hr/About_the_HR_Department/Henderson.html

http://www.oeta.tv/acw/blog/1305-a-conversation-withgeorge-henderson.html