Review: May We Forever Stand

Kyla Morgan Young

Doctoral Candidate in the Department of History at Princeton University.

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Kyla Morgan Young, "Review: May We Forever Stand," Journal of Southern Religion (20) (2018):

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Imani Perry. May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem. Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, February 19, 2018. 296 pp., 2 illus., notes, index. ISBN 978-1-4696-3860-7.

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Imani Perry’s latest work invites readers on a journey through African American history by tracing the cultural creation, embrace, and decline of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” colloquially known as the black national anthem. Perry writes with an admitted intimacy and affinity for the anthem, opening with an anecdote about her young son’s own discovery of the iconic song. The book, however, goes beyond a mere account of the song’s creation in 1900 by brothers James Weldon Johnson and John Rosamond Johnson. Rather, Perry astutely traces the simultaneous 100-year evolution of the anthem and a national black culture.

Perry uses the Johnson’s personal histories as an entry point into the cultural and social moment of turn-of-the-century America, defined by its harsh realities of Jim Crow and burgeoning diasporic black consciousness. The work traces how the iconic song captures “in specific detail the experience of black people in the New World...through both slavery and freedom” (20). In her first chapter, Perry establishes that the embrace of “Lift Every Voice and Sing” as a black anthem was a key component in a set of cultural practices and traditions that she terms “black formalism.” According to the author, this term refers to “ritual practices with embedded norms, codes of conduct, and routine, dignified ways of doing better,” everything from proper church attire to how to structure a graduation ceremony (7). Scholars of this period may be more familiar with African American uses of “politics of respectability,” an embrace of middle-white class norms as a means of securing social power and acceptance. Perry, however, convincingly shows that black formalism is distinct. The practices and traditions, such as singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing”, were cultivated in black spaces and contributed to communal dignity, not white acceptance. Perry also contends that black formalism was embraced by African Americans of all social standings and class well into mid-century. Perry’s category of black formalism provides scholars new ways of interrogating black life and cultural practices throughout the twentieth century.

According to her argument, black formalism was most actively cultivated through black associationalism. In chapter two, Perry follows how the birth of the “New Negro” and the Great Migration inspired new forms of organization and activism with divergent views on progress for African Americans. Perry highlights the ways these organizations in particular began to use or challenge the song as the black national anthem. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) which grew exponentially from 1916 to 1920, for instance, adopted the anthem as its official song by1919, embracing the message of hope and triumph in the lyrics. The connection between the anthem’s political utility and the NAACP was only furthered when author James Weldon Johnson took a position as field secretary in 1916. On the other hand, the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA), led by Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, challenged Johnson’s hymn by asserting “Ethiopia, Land of Our Fathers” as the black national anthem. Garvey’s global vision for unity, however, was stopped short by his conviction of mail fraud, leaving “Lift Every Voice and Sing” to further its cultural significance. Through an impressive analysis of community pageants, art pieces, songs, and plays, Perry continues by tracing how in segregated spaces “Lift Every Voice and Sing” became a signifier of a black cultural experience.

Perry points to the significance of African American schools in entrenching practices of black formalism, particularly through celebrations of Negro History Week and the singing of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Perry demonstrates how black schools such as the Lincoln Institute in Shelby County, Kentucky not only trained future civil rights leaders, but also through practiced black formalism, were teaching black studies before formal black studies curriculum every existed. The space of black schools, though woefully unequal, did provide space for black educators, particularly professional black women, to build a sense of cultural pride that would fuel the coming Civil Rights Movement. Perhaps one of the crowning achievements of the book, Perry masterfully writes black female educators into the long civil rights narrative in a creative and novel way. However, Perry shows that as African Americans secured key political and social rights such as school desegregation, spaces of cultural production that were necessary for passing on the black formalist tradition, such as classrooms, were being dismantled. By midcentury, Perry shows how World War II and the Cold War led to a patriotic reinterpretation of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” As African Americans joined the war effort, they also began the famed Double V Campaign, seeking freedom at home and freedom abroad. The song began appear at graduation ceremonies and in public broadcasts as a marker of racial liberalism, divorcing the song from its authors’ initial intent. Considering the anthem’s co-optation, it is not surprising that the civil rights movement favored more active lyrics about triumph, such as “We Shall Overcome” and various freedom songs.

While Perry shows that “Lift Every Voice and Sing” was still invoked in key moments—like in speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. or as an expression of public grief after his assassination in 1968—the anthem had been largely displaced by the societal upheaval of the 1960s.  However, Perry shows how the initial consciousness out of which the anthem was born would translate to the black power generation who also embraced a global vision of justice and liberation for black people around the world. Nationally, she notes, “over the 1970s the ceremonial singing of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ became a symbol of chocolate cities with black power brokers and elected officials,” but the political tide would soon shift rightward with the election of President Ronald Reagan (203). With the simultaneous rise of conservatism and gangsta rap, Perry demonstrates how the black national anthem was being reimagined. While Reagan invoked the song’s lyrics in a speech as a way to signal to black conservatives, director Spike Lee allowed hip hop group Public Enemy to pen their own black anthem with “Fight the Power” for his film Do the Right Thing. The loss of associationalism, whether through civil, religious, or political membership, gave way to the loss of the practices of black formalism as African American communities diversified into the 1990s.

Perry concludes with a call for a return, not of the anthem, but rather a revival of black formalism—spaces, practices, and ways of being that build black culture and imbue it with pride. She ends by highlighting a few sporadic appearances of the anthem in modern day beginning with the prayer at Barack Obama’s inauguration and then in Ferguson where Black Lives Matter protesters sang the song in search of consolation and hope. Ultimately, her work is a significant contribution to American cultural history.  Though she gives a great amount of attention to black civic associations and schools, further discussions about the anthem in churches and black spaces that do persist, such as historically black colleges and universities, are largely absent, leaving room for ample future scholarship.  Overall, Perry’s concise and creative cultural history is a useful guide for readers, both new to and familiar with the field of African American history, through a century’s worth of social history. She excels in showing how the black national anthem was a part of a larger cultural heritage, labeled black formalism, that was challenged and in part exchanged for particular legal and social gains, but still has a place in our modern day.