Publishers’ Preview: Diverse Voices Redux: Five Questions for Kelly Starling Lyons

Publishers' Previews: Special advertising supplement in The Horn Book Magazine

This interview originally appeared in the May/June 2019 Horn Book Magazine as part of the Publishers’ Previews: Diverse Voices Redux, an advertising supplement that allows participating publishers a chance to each highlight a book from its current list. They choose the books; we ask the questions.

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Where did “Lift Every Voice and Sing” begin? In Sing a Song: How “Lift Every Voice and Sing” Inspired Generations, Kelly Starling Lyons has the story.

Photo: Lundie's Photography.

1. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” like “The Star-Spangled Banner,” ain’t easy to sing. How well do you manage?

Though I didn’t get the gift of perfect pitch, I sing from the heart. “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” our Black National Anthem, is sacred and majestic. There’s something about singing a song that has brought strength, hope, and comfort to generations of your people that fills you up.

2. Where and when did you learn the song?

I heard it for the first time in my Pittsburgh church when I was a little girl. I didn’t understand all of the words, but I could feel the meaning. As I grew up, my understanding grew. A visit to the Ritz Theatre and Museum in Jacksonville, Florida — the hometown of composers James Weldon Johnson and J. Rosamond Johnson — made me look at the song in a new way. I marveled that kids kept it going, and that’s what inspired this story — imagining it sung by five generations of kids in one family.

3. What do you pass down to your children that your parents passed down to you?

I treasure traditions like attending family reunions; eating black-eyed peas, greens, and cornbread on New Year’s Day; singing lullabies my mom and grandparents heard when they were young. I hope my kids carry with them that family means everything.

4. You also write the Jada Jones chapter books. Different muscles?

I have four books coming out this year: two Jada Jones books (Sleepover Scientist and Dancing Queen) and two picture books (Sing a Song and Going Down Home with Daddy). At heart they’re all about finding your inner strength, being proud of who you are, and shining a light on parts of the Black experience. They take different muscles to write but come from the same place of wanting to center Black children and celebrate stories that are unsung.

5. What’s your anthem?

It depends on the day. Sometimes Mary Mary’s “Go Get It” gets me hyped. Other days, songs like “Optimistic” by Sounds of Blackness or “Just Fine” by Mary J. Blige are just right. “Lift Every Voice and Sing” reminds me that my ancestors are always with me and that I stand on their shoulders.

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