Sheryl Lee Ralph's Super Bowl Performance Made Black History—and Not Enough People Are Talking About It

Here are four ways the 'Abbott Elementary' star and veteran performer broke boundaries with her rendition of the Black National Anthem.

Sheryl Lee Ralph singing the Black National Anthem at the 2023 Super Bowl

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Sheryl Lee Ralph’s performance of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” a hymn that is also known as the Black National Anthem, in one of the largest venues in American culture—the Super Bowl—was a multilayered experience. Ralph, in bold red and black, backed by a choir in white, did not merely sing the centuries-old hymn, she performed it. This particular rendition sparked a conversation about culture, American identity, and Black history.

So, in response to all of the comments, here are five ways Sheryl Lee Ralph’s performance of “Lift Every Voice” made meaningful history that many viewers didn’t notice.

This was the first time the Black National Anthem was performed live during the Super Bowl and, yes, Black Americans do need their own national anthem. 

The song we know as “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was actually entitled by James Weldon Johnson as “National Hymn” and was sung three decades before the Star Spangled Banner was considered the National Anthem. In a country where Black Americans have been marginalized for centuries, it is a valuable and meaningful part of our history. 

Though it has been sung at the Super Bowl for the past two years, first by Alicia Keys in a prerecorded video in 2021 and next in 2022 by Mary Mary outside of the stadium, this is the first time the song was solidified in the official ceremony. Taking this step during Black History Month, by an unapologetically Black actress, is meaningful. 

Ralph’s Performance coincides with the 123rd anniversary of “Lift Every Voice.”

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” was a hymn written as a poem by NAACP leader James Weldon Johnson in 1900. The music was composed by his brother, John Rosamond Johnson and it was performed for the first time at the Stanton School by a choir of 500 Black schoolchildren.

“Lift Every Voice and Sing” is more inclusive than the “Star Spangled Banner.”

During a time when there is a concerted effort to delegitimize Black history, the singing of “Lift Every Voice” is a reminder of the beauty, resilience, freedom, and joy of the Black story, a quintessential part of American History. Just as AP African American Studies has been put on the chopping block by people who want to erase Black stories, some are questioning the legitimacy of the Black National Anthem, even calling the song “divisive.”

However, even a cursory glance at its lyrics proves that, in comparison to the “Star Spangled Banner,” "Lift Every Voice and Sing" is more inclusive and more relevant. In the lesser-sung but still-present third verse of the Star Spangled Banner, Francis Scott Key, the well-known anti-abolitionist who penned the song wrote, “No refuge could save the hireling and slave from the terror of flight or the gloom of the grave." This was a message to enslaved peoples that, should they choose the opportunity to fight for their freedom, they would meet terror and a grave. Scott Key was also known to have said emancipation was a “far greater evil” than slavery.

Meanwhile, “Lift Every Voice” acknowledges the ongoing struggle for freedom in the land of the free, a message that should feel relevant for all Americans. It is an important reminder, especially on stage at one of American culture’s most significant events, to remember the “stony road we trod, bitter the chastening rod.”

Ralph wore a Black designer to perform and was styled by her own daughter.

Sheryl Lee Ralph’s striking ensemble was designed by Charles Harbison of Harbison Studios, a Black designer. The black and red off-the-shoulder jumpsuit that featured dramatic blouson sleeves, massive gold buttons, and a long cape, was created by Charles after a call from Sheryl’s team, which he says made him pull over while driving. 

He immediately got to work, inspired to make Sheryl Lee Ralph look the like the superhero she is.

Ralph was actually styled by her daughter, Ivy Coco Maurice. Style runs in the family because Ivy’s namesake, her maternal grandmother, Ivy Ralph, owned an atelier in Kingston, Jamaica, called The House of Ivy in the 70s. Ivy has been styling her mother for over a year now, most notably at the 2022 Emmys and now for Sheryl’s Super Bowl performance, continuing the legacies of her mother and grandmother.

A Black woman singing the Black National Anthem during Black History Month with a Black choir wearing a Black designer and styled by her own daughter during America’s biggest televised event? Sounds like Black excellence to us.

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