“Lift Every Voice” – A Celebration of the Harlem Renaissance

by Doug Floyd

Just four days ago our nation celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day. In seven days, we will celebrate black history month. As our nation reflects upon the history and continuing challenges of racial equality, we might also celebrate the gift of “every voice.” One beautiful aspect of our nation is the wide berth of races and histories that combined and continue to combine in shaping our nation.

In February, The WordPlayers will perform “Lift Every Voice,” a play that celebrates the thinkers, creators, and leaders that came together during the Harlem Renaissance. In the early 1900s, thousands of Black Americans from the South, West, East and North moved in and around Harlem. They created together. They told stories. They fought in WWI. They painted. They danced. They wrote books and poems and plays. They made unforgettable music.

Music that echoed from Harlem impacted such varied singers as Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley, James Brown and Michael W. Smith. If you listen to pop, rock, jazz, swing, blues, and even gospel music, you’re listening to sounds deeply influenced by the sounds of the Harlem Renaissance.

The play, “Lift Every Voice,” introduces the amazing, beautiful story of the Harlem Renaissance. It introduces us to the period leading up to the explosion of culture in Harlem and then opens a few of the amazing talents that emerged during that era like Louis Armstrong, Zora Neale Hurston, and James Weldon Johnson.

As I researched the Harlem Renaissance, I tried to listen to the voices of these people and others. I fell in love with Louis Armstrong’s gentle soul yet impassioned music. Zora Neale Hurston made me laugh with delight as I read the songs and stories she personally recorded as a folklorist collecting stories, songs, jokes and more from an oral culture whose history was fading fast. I was stunned by James Weldon Johnson’s ability to rise above pain and bitterness. Find solace in his faith, he led his community in art, politics, church, education and much more.

These are just of few of the many people who struggled together, created together, and at times pointed toward a beauty that lifts the eye above our brokenness to the grace and mercy of God. In their songs and stories and poems, I discovered people who had suffered deeply and overcome incredible odds. I discovered people whose creative influence shaped and continues to shape our nation.

As I think about Harlem, I cannot but help think about all the wondrous and varied people across this vast nation. Each created in God’s image. Each designed to reveal His glory. I want to join the countless voices who’ve sung James Weldon Johnson’s anthem of praise:

Lift every voice and sing, till earth and Heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise, high as the listening skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
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.

I invite you to come and experience the treasure of the Harlem Renaissance in the play “Lift Every Voice.” For more information on performances and booking opportunities, visit the touring show page.