Imani Perry, author and professor of African American studies at Princeton University, spoke about her new book and black musical tradition Nov. 4 at IU.
With guests from departments spanning anywhere from Folklore and Ethnomusicology to vocal performance flooding into the classroom of the Music Library and Recital Center, the event was relocated to a new room to accommodate a larger crowd.
Perry spoke about her 2018 book “May We Forever Stand” which discusses the song “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Perry emphasized the song’s significance within Black history but was careful not to define the composition as simply the “Black National Anthem” due to the nuance surrounding the song’s meaning.
“The content of the song tells the history in epic terms," Perry said. "It was a way for the people who sang it to write themselves into that history. It is a hero’s journey, but not as an individual’s journey, rather a collective story.”
In addition to teaching at Princeton, Perry has studied law and public affairs, jazz studies and gender and sexuality studies. When she began the research for her book, she chose to focus on the historical significance singing in a religious context.
“What was missing was a discussion of the formal rituals of black culture,” Perry said. “I felt that it has been invisible in the field of black studies.”
After Perry spoke of her time composing her book, she opened the discussion to audience members who inquired on topics like cultural appropriation. A music theory professor asked about her concerns with teaching "Lift Ev'ry Voice and Sing" to her students at the Jacobs School of Music.
“I don’t worry about it at all,” Perry said. “If people are trying to create purpose and unity, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”
To conclude, the assorted group of attendees stood in unison to sing “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing” with one another. The sound of the piano at the front of the classroom guided them through the crescendos and fermatas of the piece until the group departed for the night.
“I think the power of the song is not in the recordings by and large,” Perry said. “It’s the performances themselves. Even the earliest recordings are not particularly true to the power of the song. Singing along with other people in a ritualistic setting is powerful.”