Last month I went to an event as part of Black History Month. On the program was listed the national anthem. When it came to that part of the program, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was sung. There are those, including the NAACP, who refer to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as the Black national anthem. It was well received by the vast majority of the audience, which was mostly Black.
This raised various issues. The first is whether it should be called the national anthem. To me, this is the easiest question to answer. The answer is no. There is only one national anthem: “The Star-Spangled Banner.” In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed an Executive Order to make it our national anthem. In 1931, President Herbert Hoover signed a Public Law that made it the official national anthem.
There have been other renditions that incapsulate the feeling of love for the country, such as “America the Beautiful” and “G-d Bless America.” Although they have been sung on occasion in the absence of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” they are never referred to as the national anthem.
There is another distinction between the “Star-Spangled Banner,” “America the Beautiful,” “G-d Bless America,” and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” The first three are a collective view of the country that encompasses the entire nation’s view, while the fourth one is the view of one ethnic group who refers to it as their national anthem. This dichotomy is what upsets many people, especially those on the right, when it is sung at public events. The argument goes that we are one country made up of many groups who combine to become a unique group called Americans. At first blush, this can be looked at as the long-standing debate between America being a “melting pot” and a “salad bowl.” The melting pot theory is that immigrants from all over the world come to America and change from what they were when they came here and melt into the society known as America. The salad bowl theory is that people come to America and keep some of their customs and heritage, but join together in the common good as part of America. At one time, the melting pot was the ideal. I think today, especially in multi-cultural places like New York City, the salad bowl theory has come to the forefront.
Even if America is like a salad bowl, that does not prove that it is correct to sing the Black national anthem at all events instead of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” One problem is that by doing so you are separating yourself from the rest of the country. Secondly, if one group can substitute their own anthem and call it the national anthem then there could be many other group anthems. With so many “national anthems,” there wouldn’t be anything to unite us.
There will be some who may ask how I, as a Jew, can question those who have their own anthems when some Jews sing “Hatikvah” at some events. But there is a difference. A good example is what occurs at the annual Jewish Music Under the Stars in Cunningham Park under the auspices of the Queens Jewish Community Council. The national anthem is sung at the beginning of the program. At the end of the program, after singing about Jerusalem, “Hatikvah” is sung. Thus, there is an acknowledgment of Jews being part of the collective society of the United States and that the “Star-Spangled Banner” is the national anthem. In addition, there is the singing of “Hatikvah,” which shows our support for the State of Israel, the Jewish homeland. However, Jews do not sing “Hatikvah” at every event - for example, an event which is not geared to the Jewish community, such as a community forum with local law enforcement officers.
I would suggest that approach for others who want to show their ethnic pride. Sing the American national anthem. If you are conducting a program geared toward your group, then sing songs showing group pride. Just do not call them the national anthem. On the other hand, if it is a non-ethnic event such as a football game like the Super Bowl, just sing the national anthem. If you try to put ethnic heritage into the mix when it is inappropriate under the circumstances, it will only lead to needless division, which this country already has enough of.