May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem

May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem

May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem

May We Forever Stand: A History of the Black National Anthem


The twin acts of singing and fighting for freedom have been inseparable in African American history. May We Forever Stand tells an essential part of that story. With lyrics penned by James Weldon Johnson and music composed by his brother Rosamond, "Lift Every Voice and Sing" was embraced almost immediately as an anthem that captured the story and the aspirations of black Americans. Since the song's creation, it has been adopted by the NAACP and performed by countless artists in times of both crisis and celebration, cementing its place in African American life up through the present day.

In this rich, poignant, and readable work, Imani Perry tells the story of the Black National Anthem as it traveled from South to North, from civil rights to black power, and from countless family reunions to Carnegie Hall and the the powerful ways African Americans have used music and culture to organize, mourn, challenge, and celebrate for more than a century.


O black and unknown bards of long ago,
How came your lips to touch the sacred fire?
How, in your darkness, did you come to know
The power and beauty of the minstrel’s lyre?

—JAMES weldon johnson

Oh, Black known and unknown poets, how often have your auctioned
pains sustained us? Who will compute the lonely nights made less lonely
by your songs, or by the empty pots made less tragic by your tales?

—MAYA angelou

There he was, busily moving about his toys and happily humming.

“Do you know what that song is?” I asked him.

“Yes, it’s the Black National Anthem!”

“Where did you learn it?”

“At school.”

He walked away. I was surprised. My eldest son was then in kindergarten at a predominantly white, mostly upper-middle-class Quaker elementary school. Like many other middle-class black parents I lived with a quiet nervousness about whether my child would grow up to have an adequate appreciation for black culture given his environment. But here he was, singing our precious song.

Even I, thirty-one years older than him, hadn’t learned the song in school. I’d picked it up at countless Martin Luther King Jr. memorial events, at churches, reading Ebony Jr. magazine, and in black youth groups. It was in the ether. My academic experience was much like that of my children: flies in rich buttermilk. But in the time between my childhood and theirs, racial dynamics and my family’s trajectory had changed. I was always, to some extent, a guest in the prep school world, much more identified with the red dirt of my birth state of Alabama than my clipped New England speech superficially attested. But my children were something much closer to being . . .

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