Lifting Every Voice and Singing!

James Weldon Johnson

The twenty-third chapter of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings sees Maya Angelou recalling her eighth grade graduation ceremony. While this event is meant to be joyous, things take a turn for the worst when Mr. Edward Donleavy, a sort of school superintendent, gives an absolutely deflating speech. Fortunately, valedictorian Henry Reed saves the day by discarding his speech in favor of a more unconventional presentation.

Henry Reed leads the crowd in singing The Negro National Anthem.

Click the link and prepare to dig deeper into this chapter!


First, click the links and engage with the materials pertaining to James Weldon Johnson and Lift Every Voice and Sing. Then, respond to the following prompt by using the “Leave a Reply” feature at the bottom of the page. For full credit, your response must consist of complete sentences and demonstrate active engagement.

[James Weldon Johnson Biography]
[Lift Every Voice and Sing Words]
[Ray Charles Performance]

After engaging with the above materials, detail your thoughts about the interplay between the poem and the events of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Your response can consist of reactions to the text, an examination of the words in the poem, the effects of the musicians’ performances, and/or an investigation of Johnson’s life.

For full credit, you MUST include the following:
– At least one quotation (with page numbers) from Angelou’s text!
– Specific references to the supplemental materials used!
– A demonstration of critical inquiry!

22 thoughts on “Lifting Every Voice and Singing!

  1. The connection between “Lift Every Voice and Sing” and “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” is the same as the connection between the book and the other poems we’ve read in regards to said book. All of them are poems that, in some way, can be related to the book, but this, so far, is the only one directly used in the text (title aside). These poems can also related to each other.
    For example, all of them deliver similar messages, and use similar imagery. All of these poems talk about both hope and despair, or light and darkness (not literally, this isn’t a video game), or something similar to that. All of them also mention overcoming things, or rising above adversity (in a way). The book itself even alludes to these themes in Chapter 23. “We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. (Angelou 184)”. This quote uses the same type of imagery as all of the poems, and has the same theme to it.

  2. This song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is the base of pride and strength for the African American race. This song is what makes them feel like they deserve to be treated equally. They shouldn’t have to feel like they should be treated equally. They should be treated equally from the start. However, this was not the case while Maya Angelou was growing up. Maya lived in the U.S. during times of great segregation and discrimination toward African Americans. African Americans were not given the same civil liberties as their so called “superior” white neighbors. During this time in America, some African Americans felt as though they were lesser than the white people solely due to the fact that white people told them this. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was the seen as the African American national anthem. This was their driving force of pride and power. In “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”, Maya recalls her 8th grade graduation. The principle was a white man, and he basically just told all of the graduating black children that they were worthless in the filed of education. He said that he believed they could only succeed in sports. After he said that, all of the students felt down on themselves. But, valedictorian, Henry Reed, countered the principles negativity. Maya says that Henry started to sing the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. Maya writes, ” It was the music composed by J. Rosamond Johnson. It was the Negro National Anthem….. Our mothers and fathers stood in the dark hall and joined the hymn of encouragement” (Angelou 183). Here, Henry completely reverses the mood of the graduation ceremony. He lifts their spirits and boosts their pride. He uses this song to show that he is proud of being black and that everyone else should be, too. Maya then says how she began to feel proud that she was an African American. This is very powerful because earlier in the book, she says that she wished she was white. Now Maya accepts that she is an African American and is greatly proud to be one. Again, this song serves as a source of great pride and courage for African Americans. It makes Maya feel important again.

  3. In the 23rd chapter of “I Know Why the Cage Bird Sings”, Maya is describing the day of her middle school graduation. Maya was really excited that she was graduating 8th grade. “The children in Stamps trembled visibly with anticipation” (167). Come graduation, the mood changed after a representative from the school district came on stage. He was white and talked about the changes that were coming to their school. Maya described this as leaving ugliness in the air and left her disenchanted. The reality of her being black set in – her destiny was set by the white people around them. The valedictorian of her class, Henry Reed, then came on stage to give his speech. Sensing the mood of the audience, he started to sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to his class. After, Maya regained her confidence that African American could be something in this world.

    “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was commonly known as the Negro National Anthem, which “every child [Maya] know had learned with his ABC’s and along with ‘Jesus Loves Me This I Know'” (183). This poem by James Weldon Johnson, who was the national organizer for the NAACP, tells that there was hope for African Americans to break free from oppression. “Sing a song full of the 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.” This is the reason that Henry Reed decided to sing it to his class during his speech. It was not planned, but he knew that the speech before made everyone hopeless for their future. The song was enough to bring back that hope.

  4. The poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” created by James Weldon Johnson, is a great example of how the African-Americans came together. The whole poem is about how the African-Americans came together and not only suffered individually from the whites, but suffered together from the white. The two lines that popped out to me was “We have come over a way that with tears has been watered.
    We have come, treading our path through the blood of the slaughtered”. These lines explain to me how they really were suffering together and they shared the tears and saw the bloodshed. This song was named as the African-American national anthem due to the meaning of the words and the significance of the poem. While this poem was wrote, discrimination was still in full effect and spoke for the black people through music and Johnson’s thoughts, which many African-Americans believed in. Johnson was born in Florida and really had the full effect of the whites discrimination in the south, which led to him writing in this song. This song is linked to Maya Angelou’s text because during her graduation ceremony the song is started to be sung. Everyone joins in and in which Maya believed that at that moment everyone was a one group as a whole. With many tears, Maya stated “The tears that slipped down many faces were not wiped away in shame” (pg. 184). This explains that the song brought the people together at the graduation in the remembrance that their kids too are working as a whole against discrimination. With the people becoming as one and singing the song, Maya felt welcomed to know that her surroundings stand beside her.

  5. When Maya is in auditorium, she felt uncomfortable because she was listening to the superintendent discuss how great the white school was academically whereas the black school was great athletically. The superintendent stated that the white kids were going to have a chance to become “Galileo’s and Madame Curies and Edison’s and Gauguin’s” (Mr. Edward Donleavy p. 179) whereas the African Americans would try to be Jesse Owens. Maya felt that the people made it sound like the African Americans could not achieve the same as the white people in school, and many other students took this comment to heart as well by expressing their disappointment by looking down. She was upset about the fact that Donleavy only mentioned athletes as the African Americans heroes (page 179). The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is able to relate to this chapter because this song was played during the speech and after she hears it, she becomes proud in her heritage and community and restores hope for achieving equality and freedom in the African American community. The lyrics in this song relates to this chapter because in the song it states “let us march on till victory is won”, this lyric could symbolize the African Americans fighting, or marching on, until they achieve equality in the community and aren’t thought of as a lesser person because of their skin color.

  6. Maya begins the chapter when she was at her eight grade graudation. She says the students are anxious yet excited to be there. She describes her school as being very different from the White’s school. ” Unlike the white high school… having neither a lawn nor hedges, nor tennis court, nor climbing ivy… Rusted hoops on the swaying poles represented the permanent recreational quipment.” (170) Maya describes the view from her school she has everyday. In no way in that time are colored people where they want to be, they are still descriminated against even through the smallest things like the difference between a school. During the graduation the Mr. Edward Donleavy spoke to the audience. “The man’s dead words fell like bricks around the audience and too many settled in my belly. Constraided by hard-learded manners I couldn’t look behind me, but to many left and right the proud graduating class of 1940 had dropped their heads.” (179-180) Mr. Donleavy had spoken so highly of his white schools and his white students. He said his white students were going on to be great people just like other white heroes. The graduating class was so ashammed that he did not believe that they could become people just like those heroes as well. “Henry Reed was giving his valedictory address, “To Be or Not to Be.” Hadn’t he heard the whitefolds? We couldn’t be.” (182) That is how many people in the audience felt after Mr. Donleavy speach, they had forgotten. Then Henry turned towards the graduating class of 1940 and let them in singing Lift Every Voice and Sing. Through those lyrics everyone seemed to remember again.
    “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
    Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us,”
    Those two lines describe the situation well. They know the past that they have come from and they are so thankful for where they are now, sometimes it can be forgotten through the words of whites. Maya and the graduating class were rejoiced and celebrated that they had made it this far and they knew that in time they would go farther, this moving song helps them to remember that.

  7. The poem describes the end of slavery and the beginning a new tomorrow, a brighter future. African Americans are hoping that God will grant them equality and freedom, they pray to Him that they will live another day and see the day that they are no longer discriminated against. This poem can be related to chapter 23 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings as during Maya’s graduation. The superintendent talks good of only the white school and how they are receiving new technologies, while he only talks down to the African Americans, making them feel insignificant and a waste of life. “Hadn’t he heard the whitefolks? We couldn’t be, so the question was a waste of time. Henry’s voice came out clear and strong. I feared to look at him. Hadn’t he got the message? There was no ‘nobler in the mind’ for Negros because the world didn’t think we had minds, and they let us know it.” (p.182) Maya, after hearing the speech feels defeated; however, her as well as her classmates’ spirits are lifted when Henry Reed recites the poem, Lift Every Voice and Sing. Upon hearing the poem, the joyous atmosphere returns. “I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.” (p.184)

  8. At Maya’s eighth grade graduation, the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is sung. The eighth grade graduation is a great accomplishment, and the poem is one of encouragement.
    Maya states “Every child I knew had learned that song with his ABC’s and along with “Jesus Loves Me This I Know.” But I personally had never heard it before. Never heard the words, despite the thousands of times I had sung them. Never thought they had anything to do with me.” (153) Maya is probably referring to what the words made her feel, and how they connect with her life. One stanza of the poem discusses a tough journey traveled.
    “Stony the road we trod,
    Bitter the chast’ning rod,
    Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;
    Yet with a steady beat,
    Have not our weary feet
    Come to the place for 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 bright star is cast.”
    Maya had made a great accomplishment by graduating the eighth grade, despite what she had to deal with previously. Maya might feel as if she was able complete her own great journey. Maya’s life has been a “stony road” because of the racism she faces each day. African Americans feared for their lives often, and often felt hopeless. Although racism, wanting to be someone else, and living with Momma instead of Vivian have provided challenges for Maya, she was able to reach the place where “the while gleam of her bright star is cast” shines, at eighth grade graduation.

  9. ” It was the poem wirtten by James Weldon Johnson. It was the music composed by J. Rosamond Johnson. It was the Negro national anthem. Out of habit we were singing it.” (183) This is showing how in the book, when they were at the graduation,all the people were reciting the words of this poem so naturally. Even in the book, the author of the poem had a very positive and influential impact on these people, and their outlook on the future. He wanted to show that there was good to look forward to, and that people just needed to face the day until they could become successful in achieving their victory. Most people knew the words to the poem, and it was evident that this poem had developed into the African American culture as a whole. Even outside of this book, the poem was so influential because Ray Charles made a song with lyrics along the same line as the poem. When reading the poem it is obvious that it is about people raising up and singing, and being rejoiceful, to obtain a better future. It mentions in the poem that they had a dark past and that even though it may be dark, they will continue to fight until they get to a place where they are happy. Also in the quote above it mentions James Weldon Johnson in the quote from the book, “I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings”, and he is the writer of this poem. He mad such an influence on all of these people. After reading his biography, you can tell that he was an African American who advocated for Civil Rights and wanted to stand up for African Americans. This poem shows how he was thinking during these times and unfortunately, many other people felt the same way as him. It is evident that this poem made a long lasting impression on many people during these times.

  10. In the beginning of the graduation, Maya feels uncomfortable. The principle gave a speech saying that the whites would grow up and become scientist and the blacks would become athletes. The blacks had to work twice as hard as the whites in order to achieve greatness. Maya was very upset when she heard this. “Owen’s and the Brown Bomber were great heroes in our world, but what school official in the white-goddom of Little Rock had the right to decide that those two men must only be our only heroes?” (page 179) The rest of the students near Maya were disappointed. ” … to my left and right the proud graduating class of 1940 had dropped their heads.” (page 180) However when they play the song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” hope is restored in Maya and the other graduating students. While Maya hears it her attitude is changed completely. Instead of disappointed, she is once again proud of her heritage. When the song sings, “Felt in the days when hope unborn had died; Yet with a steady beat, have not our weary feet,” It shows that the African American’s have come a long way but still have along way to go.

  11. In chapter 23 we are told about Maya’s graduation and it starts of with a speech from the superintendent Mr. Edward Donleavy. As Maya describes it the only hope it gave to the black community was that one day they could become successful through sports. it led the kids to believe that “There was no ‘nobler in the mind’ for Negroes because the world didn’t think we had minds, and they let us know it.” (182). It isn’t until the class valedictorian’s speech that Maya’s and her classmates spirits are lifted up. During his speech he turned around to face the class and recited the lines of the Negro national anthem. This poem written by James Weldon Johnson encourages African American’s to be faithful and have hope. “Lift every voice and sing till earth and heaven ring”. This is piece of writing was made to life their spirits and make them proud of the struggles their race had overcome.By the end of the ceremony Maya claims that she was a “proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race”. The empowerment of this power had raised her class’s spirits and they were no longer ashamed of who they were.

  12. Lift Every Voice and Sing Words is about determination, pride, and unity.The song emphasizes black nationalism. It symbolizes a sense of pride throughout the community. The song conveys a message about not giving up the fight for equality. Johnson was an important civil rights leader who inspired humanity through music. Maya Angelou was one of the many activists inspired by music. Angelou found pride in her heritage through music. Johnson’s creative efforts not only inspired people to fight for equality but also encouraged nationalism and unity. In the text Maya discusses her struggle to reach the top academically because of her race. She notices that segregated schools are unequal. “Unlike the white high school, Lafayette County Training School distinguished itself by having neither lawn, nor hedges, nor tennis court, nor climbing ivy” (170). Chapter 23 takes place at Maya’s graduation and she notes though academically gifted, African American people were not advancing in the work field. “My work alone had awarded me a top place and I was going to be one of the first called in the graduating ceremonies” (172). Her determination led to success, but her hard work often went unnoticed. But still, Angelou worked hard and reached the top of her class. Her determination, which is symbolized in the song, led to her own advancement.

  13. “We were on top again. As always, again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls. I was no longer a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.” (184) This realization coming from Maya, is in direct relation to the lyrics of the poem she hears at graduation called Lift Every Voice and Sing. In the poem it describes how the Negros have come treading through the path of the blood and slaughtered, and at last now stand where the white gleam of their bright star is cast. Maya, at this moment, understands that blacks have made it through their toughest times in life, and the future which lies ahead is only going to get better for them. I think this poem is an accurate display of how blacks felt after persevering through slavery, and all of the discrimination that they have been through. As in the story, this poem has the power to impact the negro race in a positive way, and make them feel good about they people they are.

  14. This song shows the hope of those of color who are living in repression. They aren’t giving up the faith and are trudging on despite they obstacles that might come in their paths. Even though there was pain in the past, the will keep marching with pride to a better and brighter future. The writer of this song, James Weldon Johnson was an active civil rights leader and head of the NAACP. He organized many civil rights walks and peaceful protests. He embodied the text of this song; despite all of the segregation and discrimination he had hope that one day blacks would be treated as equals. This song is mentioned in Henry’s speech during Maya’s 8th grade graduation ceremony. After a disheartening speech from Mr Donleavy, the song gives Maya and her fellow classmates an incredible sense of hope. This song being put in Henry’s speech gave Maya faith and filled her with pride. She was very proud of being a part of the black race. “The depths have been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls… I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful negro race” (Angelou 184). Donleavy’s speech made Maya feel as though all African Americans could possibly ever be were maids and farmers. He made it seem that the white children were the only kids that could ever amount to anything. Henry reminded Maya that anything is possible and that she too could be great.

  15. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is obviously a very important poem/song in the African American community. Its lyrics spoke to the Negro community. It describes the history of African Americans in America and reminds readers of the struggling path that Negroes had the strength to overcome and get as far as they had in society. It calls for their continued hope and faith. The lyrics really reach out to they Negro Community. It truly was an anthem for these people during this time period. It is no wonder that it became known as the Negro National Anthem.
    This song shows its power very clearly in chapter 23 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. When Henry Reed led the class in singing this song, the spirits of every person in the auditorium were lifted. Donleavy had just finished his speech, which was basically just a means of disrespecting the African American community in Stamps. The excited soon-to-be Eighth Grade graduates had their spirits squashed. But “Lift Every Voice and Sing” served as an effective means of restoring happiness and pride throughout the class and audience in the auditorium. And that’s what this song/poem was. It made these people proud to be African Americans. “I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race” (184), Maya stated of the effect of the singing at her graduation. This song is exactly what any type of anthem should be. It made people feel a true sense of pride in themselves.

  16. This is directed to the African Americans and the struggles and hardships that they all go through as they try to advance in society. The poem is used to inspire African Americans to keep trying and to keep enduring the pains that they experience and to hold on in the hope of a brighter, better future. In the story how Maya says, “I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduating class of 1940; I was a proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race.”(184). This is a wonderful quote because it shows the pride that African Americans have for being who they are. It shows that the struggles that their race has dealt with has brought them closer together and has made them stronger.

  17. The poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” has a strong connection with Maya’s memory of her eighth grade graduation. The days leading up to her eighth grade graduation were busy and filled with anxiety. When the day finally came, many found that it was not exactly what they had expected. Mr. Edward Donleavy is a white man who is the speaker at the colored school’s graduation. He gives a rather offensive speech, that upsets many people. Maya describes Donleavy and says, “The ugliness they left was palpable. An uninvited guest who wouldn’t leave”(181). However, Henry Reed is able to change the mood by having everyone together sing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”. This poem is perfect for this moment because it is uplifting in the sense that it reaches out to African Americans and how they were feeling at the time. In this case, segregation within schools. The first few lines of the poem state
    ” Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
    Till earth and heaven ring,
    Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
    Let our rejoicing rise”
    Words like this helped Maya and the other African Americans at the graduation to remember that it was a time to be happy and celebrate the accomplishment of graduating , despite what had just occurred. This poem had turned Maya’s entire mood around because of how powerful it is. After the singing was over, Maya says, “We were on top again. As always,again. We survived. The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright song spoke to our souls. I was no longer simply a member of the proud graduation class of 1940; i was proud member of the wonderful, beautiful Negro race”(184). The poem had the power of restoring positivism within Maya and the other African Americans.

  18. In Chapter 23 of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, they are moved by the singing of The Negro National Anthem. This is a poem by James Weldon Johnson. It is a very inspiring poem, no wonder it inspires Maya and her class. The white administrator guy puts down Maya’s class because they are black. This makes them all sad, but when the valedictorian leads them in singing this song, it makes them feel better. this poem is about going with a movement because it is right. There will be hard times, but if you go strong and the cause is right then God will help them out. It has very religious tones, and then can help inspire some people. “We survived . The depths had been icy and dark, but now a bright sun spoke to our souls.”(184). This made her feel a bright sun. Like the Ray Charles performance, it warms the heart and strengthens the spines. Maya is going through a rough time because she is black in a very white supreme society. She is crowded with hate and moments like this that make her happy are very important.

  19. I think this poem is meant to inspire those who want to contribute to the movement of civil rights. It has a very optimistic feelin’ to it despite the reality of African American society. It clearly cites the brutality endured in their struggle, yet manages to glorify the struggle itself. Poetry such as this was much more than appreciated by African Americans. These poems quite literally gave strength to its readers. An example of this was shown in caged bird. “Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely by your songs, or the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?”

  20. This song is a true testament to the hope and lively hood of African-American’s in America during the time of segregation. This race fought for years upon years for one simple thing, equality. It took them many years to gain this beautiful right but they accomplished it due to their high hoops and positive perspective on life. This song is a perfect example of something that brought people together in a down time, like at Maya’s graduation ceremony. Instead of dwelling on the first speech, they became overly happy when singing this wonderful song ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’. This song is all about the struggles of the African American community and how they have to keep fighting for equal rights. It is also considered the “Black National Anthem”. A quote from the book pertaining to the struggle of African Americans during the time of segregation is, “Champion of the world. A black boy.Some Black mothers son. He was the strongest man in the world.” This quote is pertaining to Joe Lewis winning the world title. This shows how much pride and joy this win brought to the African American community. This win in a fight showed that Black men were equal men to us and they were as it showed, possibly stronger. As of today we have an African American President, 100 years ago this idea would be so crazy that people would probably laugh out loud at you. This shows how time has changed and is continuing to do so.

  21. This poem by James Weldon Johnson is very powerful and has a lot of connections to I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. The middle stanza talks about a time when his people were trampled by whites, and how their hope was feeble, and killed. Maya Angelou presents an incredible representation of this time in her book. When Marguerite hears the awful graduation speech by the superintendent, she gets mad about how much work black people had to do just to start off their careers, just to be accepted as possibilities for success. “Who decided that for Henry Reed to become a scientist he had to work like George Washington Carver, as a bootblack, to buy a lousy microscope?” In this way the two pieces are related in bitterness.

    They are also related in hopefulness, since they sang the “Negro National Anthem” in the book, which is the poem… And with that I rest my case.

  22. The actual words to the poem “Lift Every Voice and Sing” at first appear to be very sullen and somber, ( i.e. “Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us”), but the deeper you dig into it, the more it appears to be a liturgy of hope for the African American race. This seems almost fitting, as the much of the African American culture that came out of the Harlem Renaissance focused on the dismal past, but at the same time shed a light of hope on the future.

    This piece is a great example of the style of the Harlem Renaissance in the way that I just explained. The way that Ray Charles performed the poem, live, simply embodied what I believe is the point of the the poem. His upbeat performance took the sullen topic of repression of African American rights and culture, and brought about (literally) a more upbeat view on the topic through the fast pace of his music and his dancing. This performance almost forces African Americans to find the true meaning of the piece, hope for a brighter future.

    This is exactly how the poem is used in “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings”. Angelou noted, “It was the Negro National Anthem….. Our mothers and fathers stood in the dark hall and joined the hymn of encouragement” (Angelou 183). The words: Encouragement, National Anthem, and even Hymn provide a positive connotation to the poem in the African American community, and when Henry Reed recited this poem at Maya’s eighth grade graduation, the poem did what it had already done and would do again for so many different African Americans: It raised their headsand helped them to get through another day of repression and to hope for a better tomorrow.

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