The song “Lift Every Voice and Sing” is an anthem deeply woven within the fabric of American history.

This week, UNC Greensboro shines a light on the song’s creator, James Weldon Johnson, early 20th-century author, NAACP executive, Broadway lyricist, U.S. diplomat, attorney, journalist and university professor.

The Department of English, along with five other academic departments, the Humanities Network and Consortium and the Lloyd International Honors College will host a symposium honoring the 90th anniversary of one of Johnson’s most beloved books, “God’s Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse.”

To open “Celebrating ‘God’s Trombones’: African American Cadences and Culture,” award-winning poet Ross Gay will read Thursday, March 15, at 7 p.m. in the UNCG Faculty Center.

On Friday, visiting scholars and UNCG faculty will give presentations in Elliott University Center (EUC). The Friday evening program includes a dramatic reading of “God’s Trombones” by members of the UNCG community at 5 p.m. and a performance by Kenny and the Tigers Trombone Shout Band at 7:30 p.m.

“It’s a way for us to come together to acknowledge the gift of Johnson’s lyric,” said Associate Professor of English and Class of 1952 Distinguished Scholar Noelle Morrissette, who has written extensively about Johnson.

As part of the symposium, Morrissette has curated three archival exhibitions, which are currently on display at UNCG. The materials are holdings in African American literature from the Special Collections and University Archives, and from Morrissette’s personal collection.

The most recent exhibition, on view this week in the Martha Blakeney Hodges Reading Room in Jackson Library, includes volumes of poetry by Johnson, anthologies he edited, books by his contemporaries and mentors and a photograph of Johnson reading to students at Fisk University in 1934.

“It shows the story of African American poetry and poetic criticism that emerged during the Harlem Renaissance as a way of valuing and establishing a tradition of African American poetics within the nation,” said Morrissette.

Creative writing graduate student Jabar Boykin has worked with Morrissette on the display and as a teaching assistant in her undergraduate class, “The Harlem Renaissance and the Jazz Age.”

“I value the resurfacing of history that’s forgotten, especially when it comes to the poetry,” he said. “Me, as a poet, I come from this tradition. That’s what I’m learning when I read Johnson’s work. … It all has a source, and I think it’s important to know the source.”

The Special Collections exhibition works in tandem with the two others. “‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’: James Weldon Johnson and the History of the Black National Anthem,” in the EUC connector to Jackson Library, shares the history of the song − its composition and contemporary resonances. The third exhibition, in the Harold Schiffman Music Library, explores Johnson’s unprecedented work in the Broadway music scene, and how it marked a turning point for black composers in American musical theater.

All events that are part of “Celebrating ‘God’s Trombones’: African American Cadences and Culture” are free and open to the public. The evening reading is also dedicated to the memory of UNCG student Charles E. Burns III. View more information on event locations and times here.


Story by Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Photography by University Communications