Professor at Historically Black College Questions ‘Black National Anthem’

Liane Membis, CNN, July 21, 2010

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is an uplifting spiritual, one that’s often heard in churches and popularly recognized as the black national anthem. Timothy Askew [an associate professor of English at Clark Atlanta University, a historically black college] grew up with its rhythms, but now the song holds a contentious place in his mind.

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Askew explains his position in the new book, “Cultural Hegemony and African American Patriotism: An Analysis of the Song, ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,'” which was released by Linus Publications in June. The book explores the literary and musical traditions of the song, but also says that a national anthem for African-Americans can be construed as racially separatist and divisive.

“To sing the ‘black national anthem’ suggests that black people are separatist and want to have their own nation,” Askew said. {snip}

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Some will call his perspective on the song a contradiction, Askew said, especially because he works at a historically black college. But he argues that universities like Clark Atlanta accept students of many races and ethnicities; a national anthem for one race excludes others, and ignores an existing national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner” by Francis Scott Key.

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What troubles Askew more is that the song became an identity marker for African-Americans.

“Who has the right to decide for all black people what racial symbol they should have?” Askew said. “Identity should be developed by the individual himself, not a group of people who think they know what is best for you.”

Hilary O. Shelton, senior vice president for advocacy and policy for the NAACP, said Askew’s ideas might be far-fetched.

“I don’t see anything that is racially exclusive or discriminatory about the song,” Shelton said. “The negro national anthem was adopted and welcomed by a very interracial group, and it speaks of hope in being full first-class citizens in our society.”

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“I think that we often try to separate the black experience from the American experience,” said Marc Lamont Hill, an associate professor of education at Columbia University who studies hip-hop culture. “It’s a black national anthem, but it’s also a quintessential American song because of its message of fighting for freedom. It’s not ‘lift the black voices,’ it’s ‘lift every voice.'”

Askew, though, maintains there’s only one national anthem, “The Star-Spangled Banner,” and that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” could take on a new role: a message of victory for all ethnic groups in the United States.

“We need to consider eliminating this alternative label of ‘black national anthem’ in order to promote unity,” Askew said. “I know people will probably think that I’m a sellout, but I think it is important that African-Americans nationally understand that we should be moving towards racial cohesiveness.”

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