In my heart, I knew I could not do it. I knew I had a greater obligation to Ahmaud Arbery. To Breonna Taylor. To George Floyd. To my fellow students. To my people.
When I was asked to submit a recording of myself singing the national anthem by my vocal teacher and principal, I had mixed emotions. At my performing arts school, it is an esteemed honor to sing the anthem at graduation; every year, one junior at the Urban Assembly School for Performing Arts is selected to sing it.
However, I’ve never really believed in the national anthem because it presents a false narrative of the “American Dream,” promoting the idea that everyone is free and that we are all equal, when it couldn’t be further from reality for black and brown people in this country.
But despite all of that, I still agreed to sing the anthem because of the honor to perform at graduation, especially at a school like mine where talent abounds. I was selected, I thought, so I’ll do it.
And then, Arbery was killed. Taylor was killed. Floyd was murdered. After reckoning with the pain of these unjust homicides, I started to ask myself if I could really sing this salute to American greatness to a predominantly black and brown graduating class, and especially at this time.
How could I sing a song that praises a country that is deeply rooted in racism? How could I sing a song about a country that rewards colonizers who raped, pillaged and destroyed many lives with statues and monuments? How can I sing a song about a country that continues to oppress people who look like me? A country whose people often find ways to justify the unjust killings of innocent black and brown lives?
And what would it say about me to sing a song that goes against everything I believe in?
As an Afro-Latina, to sing a song like this and ignore its history, a history wrapped up in racism, would make me complicit in a system that has oppressed people — my people — for years. The author of its words, Francis Scott Key, himself owned slaves even as he fashioned himself a man who cherished freedom.
In the days leading up to our virtual graduation, I texted my vocal teacher to let her know that I was uncomfortable singing the national anthem. She affirmed my feelings and let me know that I wasn’t alone, and we decided to talk further on the phone. I was ready to back out of this opportunity and stand up for my fellow students and my people. I knew if it came down to keeping the national anthem for graduation, that I would not be the one singing it.
But my vocal teacher and my school community were on board with my decision to sing another song.
And so, instead of the national anthem, I chose to sing “Lift Every Voice,” which is commonly referred to as the black national anthem. I am proud to sing this song to my peers, as they go on to inspire others through art, music, activism and light. I am proud to sing a song that means something to us — a song that inspires, that is honest about our plight as people of color. A line in the first verse of James Weldon Johnson’s poem-turned-song states “Let our rejoicing rise, high as the list’ning skies. Let it resound loud as the rolling seas.” The first verse ends with “Let us march on ‘til victory is won.”
Black and brown young people like myself are living out this line. We are celebrating our excellence, letting our voices be heard, and are remaining steadfast in fighting for our humanity to be recognized.
Morales is a rising senior at the Urban Assembly School for Performing Arts, an unscreened performing arts high school in New York City.