Dr. Jessica A. Johnson

As sports writers' reflections on Super Bowl 57 are now being archived until football ramps up again during the upcoming fall 2023 NFL season, I've continued to think about the message in Anthony Mackie's pre-game "Ragged Old Flag" promotional spot that was aired to get viewers into a stirring, patriotic mood.

Using the theme from Johnny Cash's 1974 "Ragged Old Flag" country hit, the ad effectively began with a young boy eagerly walking up the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, beaming with anticipation to take in the U.S. history he is about to learn. Mackie starts the first narration that includes rousing prose, stating that America "at its best is more than an idea. It's a promise, a pledge, hard-earned and held fast, passed through generations." The reciting of the "Ragged Old Flag" lyrics are backed by the splendid voices of America's Youth Choir. Fox Sports was certainly bold in its collaboration with the NFL to champion a message that our nation's founding values of freedom and justice still unite us as a people.

However, if you've been reading some of the comments on news articles and social media regarding the Super Bowl's featured renditions of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by country music singer Chris Stapleton, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" by "Abbott Elementary" award-winning actress Sheryl Lee Ralph and "America the Beautiful" by Grammy Award-winning artist Babyface, our ongoing political polarization is glaringly evident. Many people seemed to have more of an issue with "Lift Every Voice and Sing," also known as "The Black National Anthem," being included in the pre-game ceremonial lineup, as complaints on Twitter and news sites like Yahoo! voiced dissatisfaction that Ralph's performance promoted "wokeness" and further stoked our divisions.

I was initially shocked by these reactions but then quickly remembered that many younger people are not familiar with the history behind the poem that James Weldon Johnson beautifully penned in 1900. "Lift Every Voice and Sing" became the official song of the NAACP in 1919, and growing up in church I learned it along with other well-known hymns such as "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" and "How Great Thou Art." "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is sung in many African American churches during Black History Month celebrations in February, and as a child I remember the emphasis by my church elders being on God's grace in triumphing through racial oppression and the hope through Christ that justice would become a reality for everyone. Nothing in the lyrics denotes racial division and separation. The end of the last verse says, "Shadowed beneath Thy hand/May we forever stand/True to our GOD/True to our native land." The "native land" Johnson was referring to is America.

I asked the students in my Ohio State University Lima African American sports history class what they thought about the post-Super Bowl controversy concerning "Lift Every Voice and Sing." One of them gave a perceptive answer that I believe reflects the mood of many young adults as they continue to observe the bitter impact of our nation's partisan wrangling. This student said that the aftermath of the arguing over the addition of "Lift Every Voice and Sing" represents a no-win situation. People were upset that Sheryl Lee Ralph performed the song, and if it had been excluded others would have felt slighted. This is an accurate observation of the discordant, political crossroads where we currently find ourselves; yet, I am encouraged that my students have not given up on the promise of America that Mackie spoke of.

In my personal reflection on what the promise of America means, I have always believed that it is divinely inspired by God. The Founding Fathers often mentioned the "hand of Providence," and although six of the principle founders were slave owners and some were Deists, I believe that God influenced the precepts of the Declaration of Independence. To state that all men are "endowed by their Creator" with the "unalienable Rights (of) Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness" laid the blueprint for slavery to be dismantled as America would, as Mackie expressed, become a "pact through struggle and sacrifice handed down over time." We must not lose the faith forged from the history of our struggles even though we are a long way from a perfect union.

Dr. Jessica A. Johnson is a lecturer in the English department at Ohio State University's Lima campus. Email her at smojc.jj@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter: @JjSmojc.

Photo by Anthony Shane on Unsplash

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