LIFT: Contemporary Expressions of the African American Experience presents area contemporary artists’ responses to Jacksonville’s rich artistic African American heritage, with an emphasis on creating an artful platform to discuss issues around race, equity, and community. Using the original lyrics to “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” a song written by Jacksonville natives James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson in 1900 for a celebration of Lincoln’s birthday, artists Thony Aiuppy, Glendia Cooper, Ingrid Damiani, Overstreet Ducasse, Dustin Harewood, Marsha Hatcher, Hiromi Moneyhun, Princess Rashid, Chip Southworth, and Roosevelt Watson III created works that present their views of the complex history of race relations in this city and beyond. From literal interpretations of the lyrics to more abstract emotional responses, these new works inspire, challenge, confront, and uplift, providing a contemporary view to the words and social relevance of the Johnson brothers’ masterpiece. The exhibition, a powerful collaboration with the Ritz Theatre & Museum, was scheduled in a very intentional way, opening in time for the 146th anniversary of James Weldon Johnson’s birth and closing on the 117th anniversary of the first performance of “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” at the Stanton School.
The inspiration for the exhibition begins in Jacksonville in 1900. James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938), principal of the city’s Stanton School, at the time the largest African American public school in the state of Florida, enlisted his brother, composer John Rosamond Johnson (1873 – 1954), to help him write a song to commemorate Lincoln’s birthday. The brothers had been raised in Jacksonville’s LaVilla neighborhood by parents who emphasized academics and the arts. James graduated from Atlanta University as the valedictorian of his class, and then became the first African American to be admitted to the Florida Bar. Rosamond graduated from the New England Conservatory of Music, and by this time was working in New York as a composer of musicals and vaudeville performances.
Together, the brothers wrote “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing,” adopted by the NAACP in 1920 as its official anthem. James would later recall, “The spirit of the poem had taken hold of me … I did not use a pen and paper. While my brother worked at his musical setting I paced back and forth, repeating the lines over and over to myself, going through all of the agony and ecstasy of creating … I could not keep back the tears, and made no effort to do so. I was experiencing the transports of the poet’s ecstasy. Feverish ecstasy was followed by that contentment – that sense of serene joy – which makes artistic creation the most complete of all human experiences … I knew that in the stanza the American Negro was, historically and spiritually, immanent; and I decided to let it stand as it was written.”
Article written by Holly Keris