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You Tube’s three stanzas of the anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” moved me deeply, its one hundred-year-lyrics still sung in Black Churches, in Black History Month seminars, and other events. The anthem’s vision speaks to those willing to listen: a plea for Liberty to the God of silent tears.

The dismal failure of the Civil War Post-Reconstruction in late nineteenth-century America compelled James Weldon Johnson, lawyer, school administrator, prolific writer, and poet in Jacksonville, Florida, to compose these lyrics. Tears flooded him after listening to his brother’s rendering them in the word-painting technique: the melding of images upon the soulful melody in A flat major, often used in spirituals.

“ Lift Every Voice and Sing” was first presented to honor the1900 visit of educator Booker T. Washington to the Black school, Stanton, where Johnson was principal. Those five hundred singers, many becoming teachers, carried the anthem with them, and taught other classrooms, which, in turn, spread this vision of hope.

In 1919, the NAACP proclaimed, “ Lift Every Voice and Sing” the Black National Anthem of America; it also spirited the1960s Civil Rights Movement led by Dr. Martin Luther King.

YouTube carries several versions of this stirring anthem.

In my study of Booker T. Washington’s autobiography, Up from Slavery (1901), I came across an unusual phrase, “the gospel of the toothbrush,” its practice and symbolic meaning providing a perspective from which to view this graced life.

Born into slavery on a Virginia plantation in1856, the author experienced its stink until the end of the Civil War. His passion to learn drove him to leave home in1872, with fifty cents in his pocket, and walk five hundred miles to the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute for black students. There, he came under the tutelage of its founder, General S. Armstrong, and learned about the “gospel of the toothbrush” and the importance of oral hygiene and so much more.

In 1881, Washington, now an educator, founded a similar institute in Tuskegee, Alabama and implemented this gospel/good news among his students, former slaves, desperate to learn as he had been, many arriving on campus with only a toothbrush.

Preservation of their teeth through daily brushing also ingrained within the students the imperative of thoroughly chewing and digesting the avalanche of new learning, their daily fare. Manual work and academics filled the curriculum. Within its ambiance, they discovered their unique personhood and became teachers, tradesmen and women, with an entrée into the white world around them—no matter that lynchings, the terror of the Ku Klux Klan, and waffling federal legislation undermined these strivings.

Booker T. Washington, an educator who knew the spirit of his people, never asked of his students what he himself had not achieved. His autobiography, Up from Slavery, evidences his wisdom and meek spirit—a critical read for us still in bondage.

 

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