When Rahilah Taylor took the microphone at this year’s Juneteenth celebration at William B. Lyons Park, the park fell quiet. Conversations paused. She began to sing.
From the portable stage set up in the heart of Mountain View, the lyrics to James Weldon Johnson’s “Lift Every Voice and Sing” swelled out over the neighborhood:
Lift every voice and sing
Till earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the listening skies
It was the first time Taylor had performed in public in about a decade, she said. And it was important.
Juneteenth, the holiday marking the end of slavery in the United States, was celebrated in Anchorage this year with a series of community events and festivities: a cookout, a teen summit, a cultural day camp and — finally — a celebration at the public park on Price Street. A food truck and vendor booths filled the parking lot at New Hope Baptist Church; neighbors gathered; entertainers sang and danced.
Taylor, a first-generation American who immigrated from Trinidad and Tobago, said she only recently learned about Juneteenth and its meaning. Once she understood its significance, she said, she wanted her children to know, too.
“This is part of their history,” she said.
When she learned this year’s Anchorage celebration was scheduled to include musical performances, she knew what she needed to do.
“I called them up and I was like, ‘Hey, are you guys doing auditions?’” Taylor recalled, laughing. “They were like, ‘No.’ I’m like, ‘I’m coming anyway.’ So I went! And I just sang for them, and I got it.”
To perform on Juneteenth, she picked a song with words that resonated through generations: “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” the song written as a poem by James Weldon Johnson in 1900.
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 feet
Come to the place for which our fathers sighed?
“Those words are so strong. Can you imagine not having hope? People are like, ‘Oh, yeah, I don’t have gas, I hope I get to the gas station.’ You know, that’s as much as we need to hope in today’s day and age. But could you imagine a time when you didn’t even have the ability to hope, because it had died within you?” said Taylor, standing beside the stage after her performance that day.
“I think that’s what was really going through me (on stage), was just the strength and the power behind the words. They were so melancholy! But they still had a semblance of hope kind of coming forward; of times that were going to be great. So I think I kind of held on to that. I really wanted my listeners to feel the passion and the strength and the history of the song.”This story first appeared in the September 2018 issue of Mountain View Post magazine.