The Divine Troika: Examining the Religious Nature of “God Save the South,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” and “Monday in B-Flat”

robert cole, james weldon johnson, and j. rosamond johnson

When reading “God Save the South,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” or “Monday in B-Flat,” one will notice the common theme of God and salvation. It is interesting to note that even though divine salvation is a common theme, the messages could not contrast more. The idea of revolution, liberation, and freedom creates a dichotomy when comparing these works. All three works were authored by Americans, but due to the collective memory the meaning of liberation and deliverance is vastly dissimilar.

George Henry Miles wrote “God Save the South” to inspire southern pride and to contribute the Confederate War effort. It has the distinction of being the unofficial Confederate National Anthem. In one verse Miles writes “Let the proud spoiler know Gods on our side.” (Miles) Miles is referencing unionists as “proud spoiler[s].” White southerners call on God to help win the war, a war initiated by the southern Whites with the sole purpose to preserve the institution of slavery. This poem was written in 1861 at the beginning of the war. In Miles’s opinion the war will not just be waged on the battlefield but will also be a holy war that will be ever present, even in the Church. This is evident when he writes “Her altars and firesides, God save the South.” From the outbreak of the Civil War until its conclusion the Union Army outnumbered their Confederate foe, Miles points this out in his the second stanza “What tho’ they’re three to one.” (Miles) This represents the rebels were out manned three to one. Even with the numbers stacked against the rebels, the fire-eaters were not deterred be they knew God was going to be their “shield.” Proof of this can be found in the second stanza, where Miles uses the metaphor of God being a shield that will stretch his arm over the south. Naturally the entire poem is filled with irony. A perfect example containing not only irony but also a metaphor rests in the second line of the sixth stanza, “…theirs be the guilt, who fetter the free man to ransom the slave.” (Miles) In other words, abolitionists should feel guilty for putting metaphoric shackles on white southerners in order to free the enslaved African Americans held by southern planters. The historical realities of the Confederacy’s foundation of slavery coupled with Miles’s claim that Confederates were the victims of tyranny creates a poem steeped in irony. This would almost be comical if there were not enslaved Black Americans that were in chains on the auction block across the South.

Like “God save the South,” James Weldon Johnson’s epoch “Lift Every Voice and Sing” also discusses liberation and revolution though God’s intercession. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” also called the Black American or Negro National Anthem, echoes the hopes and dreams of people of the African diaspora in their quest for self-liberation. In contrast to “God save the South,” The Black liberation that Johnson highlights in his work does not come at a cost to the freedom of others. The poem drips we the rich history of Black America and contains a cornucopia of symbolism. The opening lines are moving, urging Black Americans to “lift every voice and sing, till earth and heaven ring.” The Author encourages Black Americans to praise God through their song and through God liberation is possible. Being a student of Black history Johnson knows that Black Americans have had a struggle and as he describes a in the sixth line of the first stanza as “the dark past.” The conclusion of the first stanza pumps the reader with hope that although the past for Black Americans was dark, the future will be better judging by the progress of the present. Johnson writes “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.” (Johnson) The imagery of the rising sun as a new beginning is the same symbol used by the Obama campaign. The use of the line “let us march on till victory is won” is also interesting to look at because nowhere in “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is violence or military action mentioned. This juxtaposed to “God Save the South” where the entire poem is about a militaristic holy war yet the words “march” nor “victory” are never mentioned. The message in Johnson’s work is marching on is peaceful solidarity out of the darkness forging a new identity for African-Americans.

The second stanza of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” addresses the struggle Black Americans faced on their sojourn. It begins:

Stony the road we trod,

Bitter the chastening rod,

Felt in the days when hope unborn had died (Johnson)

Johnson simply means the path to liberation has been covered with debris and Black Americans have literally been beaten in their quest for cultural independence. The viciousness of slavery and the nadir tried to break the spirit of Black America and for some there was no hope. Black Americans struggled through some of the worst condition imaginable. But through cultural agency and “out from the gloomy past,” Black Americans progressed into the gumbo culture that is America. Many consider the second stanza to be the most riveting, but the final stanza is the one most people are familiar with. In the third and final stanza the poem reaches a crescendo and the author implores God for liberation. For far too long have Black people been working and marching; far too long have they had to stay quiet in the face of injustice. But through God’s “might” He has brought Black people into the “light.” The light has a double meaning here, like stated before it means the future but it also means the light to the gates of heaven. Again Johnson talks about the pitfalls that can befall people and lead them astray. Evidence of the temptation Johnson thinks will cause Black people to stray from the Lord are recognizable when he writes “lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met thee, least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee…” Black Americans should not turn from home, church, and family all the places that Black people should be loyal too and were the Devil should not reside. (Johnson) He also feels that African-Americans should not get lost indulging in the pleasures of the society. That is what he means by “least our hearts, drunk with the wine of the world, we forget thee…” Johnson concludes stating that we are all under the shadow of God and we will stand together one with God and to Africa our where our ancestors are from. (Johnson)

Another African-American writer would disagree with James Weldon Johnson.  Amiri Baraka in his poem “Monday in B-Flat,” states simply “I can pray all day and God won’t come. But if I call 911 the Devil will be here in a minute!” (Baraka)While the previous two authors believe in Gods intercession into actions, Baraka calls it like he sees it God does not come when called. He uses the metaphor of the Devil to represent the police. Due to the history of police brutality towards people of color, Baraka represents police as the Devil and evil. These were the words of the Black Power movement which Baraka was part of. Baraka and of the Black Power activists used words like this as a form of liberation.

The role God plays in the poetry of American writers varies. The consensus is that God is on the side of the right. As one can see the interpretation of the right side is debatable. Miles believed that the Confederacy was fighting a holy war and God was on their side. Nearly 40 years later, Johnson claimed God was on the side of the former enslaved and their oppressed descendants claiming that God would lead them to salvation. Amiri Baraka turns the entire debate on whose side God is on by simply stating that God wont show up if called. This only leaves the age old question “if God is for us who could be against us?” especially if both sides pray to the same God.

Works Cited

Baraka, Amiri. “Monday in B-Flat.” n.d. Website. 31 March 2015.

Johnson, James Weldon. “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” 1899. Website. 29 March 2015.

Miles, George Henry. “God Save the South.” 1861. Website. 29 March 2015.

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