Way behind because of personal matters, I wanted to post this last month. These remarks, made when the book first appeared, still ring true for me.
May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem is a thoroughly engrossing read. Imani Perry’s exploration of the origin, evolution, and resonance of this fabled song by James Weldon Johnson and Rosamond Johnson contributes mightily to our understanding of Black cultural and political development from the early nineteenth century onward. This fascinating book is largely about the collective strivings of Black people as well as the enduring relationship and importance of the “Black National Anthem” to those struggles. A vibrant history told by a skilled historian, this highly readable volume describes the contested social terrain of the Progressive Era, the age of the Harlem Renaissance, 1930s and 1940s Black radicalism, the Civil Rights Movement, the Black Power/Black Arts phenomenon, the neoliberal ascendancy, and the hip-hop intervention. In Perry’s adroit hands, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” becomes a character that interacts with numerous others. It moves enough members of the NAACP to be adopted as the official song of that organization. It is on Marcus Garvey’s mind as he builds the Universal Negro Improvement Association. The anthem helps Maya Angelou and her fellow eighth graders get through a trying graduation ceremony. Shortly thereafter, it begins to inform the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr. It serves as a classroom ritual for Sonia Sanchez and Angela Davis. It spills out of the horn of Sonny Rollins as he records an album. It inspires Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, and Kim Weston; then it leaps forward into the opening of a Spike Lee movie and on to Reverend Joseph Lowry’s benediction at the first Obama inauguration. This has been a busy song. It has been, as Perry declares, the common thread, a unifying force that has touched those mentioned above along with millions who have encountered the anthem in various schools, cultural institutions, civic organizations, and community gatherings. Yet the song has never been simply one thing. Its meaning has been flexible, its message of resilience and hope adapted for many different occasions. Perry writes modestly that her book is a “story about the collective embrace of the song as an anthem, as well as the social and cultural history that is revealed by following its trajectory.” It is that and more. May We Forever Stand is a rousing contribution to the Black Intellectual Tradition.