Singer, actress and fashion designer Vanessa Williams has ignited a firestorm of controversy on social media by singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” what is often considered the “Black national anthem” as part of her evening hosting PBS’s annual television special “A Capitol Fourth” to celebrate Independence Day.
— Excessively Black (@_MyDMsBroke) July 5, 2021
CNN’s Lisa Respers France reported the criticism began as soon as promotions for the special began airing. In the commercials, Williams referenced the song as a “celebration of the wonderful opportunity that we now have to celebrate Juneteenth. So, we are reflective of the times.”
According to Respers France, “conservative Twitter jumped on the ‘national anthem’ part and declared it ‘divisive,’ ‘segregation’ and ‘racist’ to have any anthem other than ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’ which was scheduled to be performed by Grammy-award winner Renée Fleming.”
Those who defended Williams blamed the whole episode on the typical nature of social media, where someone gets offended at something, and outrage typically ensues and reigns.
Following her performance of “God Bless America” earlier in the broadcast, Williams said she was “filled with the spirit of freedom and the perseverance that is required to achieve that most precious right.”
“I dedicate this to our ancestors, to our new federal holiday Juneteenth and to all who celebrate freedom,” she said.
The NAACP writes that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has been referred to as “the Black national anthem” for decades. The song was originally a “hymn written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900. His brother, John Rosamond Johnson, composed the music for the lyrics. A choir of 500 schoolchildren at the segregated Stanton School, where James Weldon Johnson was principal, first performed the song in public in Jacksonville, Florida to celebrate President Abraham Lincoln’s birthday.”
In describing the significance of the song, the NAACP said that “at the turn of the 20th century, Johnson’s lyrics eloquently captured the solemn yet hopeful appeal for the liberty of Black Americans. Set against the religious invocation of God and the promise of freedom, the song was later adopted by NAACP and prominently used as a rallying cry during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s.”