- May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem by Imani Perry
In 1900, James Weldon Johnson and his brother, J. Rosamond, composed "Lift Every Voice and Sing" to commemorate Abraham Lincoln's birthday. The brothers were emblematic of middle-class black Jacksonville, Florida,—James worked as principal of Stanton School and Rosamond taught music Florida Baptist Academy—and their song rapidly became intimately connected to black organizations such as the National Association of Colored Women's Clubs and black public schools, first locally, and then throughout the South. Imani Perry's May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem documents the song's historic embrace as the "Negro National Anthem" in order to tell a story about black political thought, associational life, and cultural ingenuity in the twentieth century.
Perry uses the song to embody and to document what she terms, "black formalism," a theoretical lens that describes the "performance and substance within black associations and institutions" (p. 7). Black formalism highlights the ways that African Americans sought to challenge white supremacy, concoct new representations of black people and culture, and to aspire to become full and equal American citizens. Perry's framework offers an analytical resuscitation of the "politics of respectability" and its ideological twin (which Perry rarely uses), "uplift," to describe "practices that were primarily internal to the black community" (p. 8). Rather than aspiring to prove to white Americans that blacks can be as hard-working, patriotic, and deserving as they, Perry demonstrates that African Americans were not mimicking [End Page 419] white normatives as much as they were creating themselves into modern intellectual and political actors.
Perry's history incorporates the histories of black associational life, the New Negro movement, the NAACP, the MOWM and Double V campaigns, Black Marxism, the Civil Rights Movement, and Black Power. Covering this vast territory, she makes surprising connections between Du Bois's brand of black formalism and Black Power, black colleges and the Highlander Folk School, and SNCC and the Fugees' Wyclef Jean.
One of Perry's achievements is her powerful corrective to scholarship that overemphasizes the classist aspects of African American social movements. As she casts a wide, national net, Perry links rural and urban, South and North, poor and middle-class in ways that unite communities of African Americans that scholars most often discuss in isolation. In a wonderful chapter on black schools during Jim Crow, Perry reveals how sharecropping and menial-laboring African Americans in the South raised thousands of dollars for their schools before she elegantly pivots to Dunbar High, formerly M Street High the crown jewel of Reconstruction-era black schools in Washington, D.C., where black associational life took on national implications. "Lift Every Voice" joins the two vastly different black institutional worlds, where both poor rural blacks and the bourgeoisie Washingtonians became emblems of black formalism.
In the second half of her concise book, Perry navigates the patriotic days of World War II, the ambiguities of the Cold War, the increased internationalism among the black Left, and the rise of the black freedom struggle of the 1950s and 1960s. Through it all, the Negro National Anthem shifted and adjusted its representational power according to the needs of the people who sang and cherished it, even as black Americans increasingly debated both the song's meanings and their strategies for struggle and acceptance in American society.
While Perry does not explicitly frame the song in Du Bois's notion of double consciousness, she demonstrates how the song's various interpretive meanings often slid between the dialectical poles of [End Page 420] American-ness and African American-ness. (And Du Bois is a key player throughout much of the book.) Was the song a hymn or an anthem? If the latter, was it a national one? And who, indeed, makes up the nation? These questions have multitudes of answers, and Perry brings life to them all, always choosing a complex, layered...