The Secret Behind Lowery's Awesome Benediction

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THE PLANK JANUARY 20, 2009

The Secret Behind Lowery's Awesome Benediction

What made Joseph Lowery's benediction so awesome?

There was that funny, hip ending, obviously. ("When yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man ...")

But Lowery's benediction had what Rick Warren's earnest invocation, Barack Obama's powerful address, and Elizabeth Alexander's limping poem all to some degree lacked: rhythm. Lowery set this rhythm up by quoting a hymn at length--not just any hymn, but "Lift Every Voice And Sing," still sometimes called the "Negro National Anthem." Even the stanzas Lowery didn't quote are eerily appropriate to the moment:

Stony the road we trod,Bitter the chast'ning rod,Felt in the days when hope unborn had died;Yet with a steady beat,Have not our weary feetCome to the place for which our fathers sighed?

I sang this hymn at the church where I work just this past Sunday, and slowly recognizing Lowery was reciting "Lift Every Voice" made his words suddenly familiar and, thus, even more moving. Here's the verse with which Lowery began:

God of our weary years,God of our silent tears,Thou who has brought us thus far on the way;Thou who has by Thy mightLed us into the light,Keep us forever in the path, we pray.Lest our feet stray from the places, our God, where we met Thee,Lest, our hearts drunk with the wine of the world, we forget Thee;Shadowed beneath Thy hand,May we forever stand,True to our God,True to our native land.

I often wish politicians would feel more comfortable quoting, say, scripture or poems or founding documents at length, but I think they're skittish about being accused of pulling a Joe Biden. Lowery showed how powerful and authentic a move it can be to forge a whole address around somebody else's powerful text. We all stand on the shoulders of giants.

--Eve Fairbanks

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