A couple of weeks ago, when I was mulling over how to teach my New American students about MLK Day and all the history that that implies, I found an email in my inbox from the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. They were offering a teacher workshop with Damien Sneed, who was performing with his group. If I paid $20 for a teacher workshop after school, they would give me 2 tickets to the evening performance, We Shall Overcome, for free:
Join visiting artist Damien Sneed for a workshop inspired by the words and actions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Sneed is at the Flynn presenting student matinee and evening performances of his work We Shall Overcome, which ties together a living lineage of music and culture that includes traditional and modern gospel, classical, jazz, Broadway, and spirituals, all interwoven with excerpts from Dr. King’s speeches. Fee includes two free tickets to see the evening performance of We Shall Overcome. This workshop links to civil rights, activism, music history, African-American culture/tradition/history, voice, expression.
I thought, “Why not? I need a date night. And maybe I’ll learn something” So I emailed my partner, secured a place on the calendar, and planned to go.
And then I totally forgot about it. And my partner got confused, because I also that same week had asked him to get tickets for me to see Dr. Ibram X. Kendi who is speaking as headliner this week for UVM’s 2020 MLK series. He wrote the book How to be an Antiracist, which is on my list of things I need to read, ever since I heard about in during the #leadingequitysummit at the beginning of the year. But I have a conflict with my afterschool commitments. So I told him that I didn’t need the ticket after all. And my partner thought our date night was off the books. But I did register to see Damien Sneed; our date was still on, even though I had forgotten.
Wednesday morning, I looked at my calendar and realized that my evening plans needed to be altered. I wouldn’t just be going to bed early. We had a concert to go to, and I was going to make it happen.
I am so glad I went.
In case you’re interested, here’s an interview in which Damien Sneed talks about the tour:
The first hour of the workshop was all about his story and how he got here. I wish that were something my students could hear in a language they understand. He spoke of his adoption, of his parents, particulary his mother, dying, of the power of music and of opportunities lost and gained, struggles and triumphs. And, yes, of music.
The second focused on what we might hear that night and how it connected with moments in history. We sang and marched together. He remarked how lovely the people of Burlington were (which we are) and said he really needed to look at properties. 🙂
Then he asked if we had questions.
I asked how to make this relevant to students of color who did not grow up with this historical context.
I struggle with this, being white.
In my last blog post, I talked about my approach to teaching MLK for real, that instead of reaching for elementary-school-aged materials, which consists of the kumbayaya that we settle on for kindergartners (I have a dream… people couldn’t sit where they wanted to on the bus, so Rosa got arrested and Dr. King fixed it), I wanted to help my students understand why they might feel uncomfortable today, about our country’s more than checkered past and present when it comes to race relations, and about why many people just prefer not to bring up those uncomfortable ideas of race and racism (because of course, we in our white fragility do not have a racist bone in our bodies) and prefer focus instead on images of MLK preaching love and unity and celebrating identity. I want them to understand that claiming colorblindness is not OK.
So how do I get there? How can I take this rich history of music and turn it into something my students can sink their teeth into, in a way they understand?
I told Damien that recently resettled refugees have to live with the stigma of color without having the context of history. This is really hard. And it shouldn’t be a one-day introduction to Everything Black U.S. History. So how to I teach them? How do I make them understand that sometimes they might be watched in a store, just because they are African? How do I explain why white people might not sit next to them on the bus? How do I explain that just by walking with a group of friends, they might be perceived as “dangerous” or “suspicious”?
He found my question “interesting” and asked the person who was documenting to film while I asked my question (which I pushed back against because I was emotional, as I always am when I talk about things that fire me up) so that he could think about the answer a little later.
For me, this has become an issue of necessity, of security, of safety. My students need to know. And we can’t just celebrate the positive and paint pretty pictures.
He talked to us about resources offered by the Smithsonian Folk Ways resources, about Eileen Southern and her research on Black American musical history. But he said that he liked my question. He liked a challenge. And that he would be in touch through the Flynn.
So I’ll wait for more answers.
But in the meantime, I went back to the Flynn to listen.
The Burlington Ecumenical Gospel Choir sang backup, announcing they would be reviving GospelFest this year, which had taken a hiatus.
And the concert was outstanding. Music blended with historial speeches. We listened to music from the past, from gospel standbys to pop hits. The group of singers who traveled with Damien were artists worthy of headlining their own concerts, including all these amazing people. My partner, a lover of all things musical, nearly jumped out of his seat when Damien announced that one of the singers, Linny Smith, had won a Grammy for his work on The Greatest Showman. “Can we hear that?” he whispered.
Damien Sneed’s style was one that left all of his compatriots guessing. They didn’t always know which direction he was going to go next. He’d play a few notes, and they would stare at him until they finally nodded with recognition at the song he wanted them to croon. And he made his keyboardist get into the action a bit, sliding in to take his place on the keyboard has he handed him the microphone and asked him to scat. This fly-by-the-seat-of your-pants performance made it all the more real. You had to pay attention. Damien told the audience that the elementary and middle school crowd from that morning had danced in the aisle, then they challenged us to dance.
And we did.
We didn’t really have a choice. But it was delicious to be invited to jump up and move. It was exciting and exhausting and lovely and beautiful.
I’m excited to see if I actually will hear back about how I can connect my students to this rich musical history.
But in the meantime, I will rejoice in the fact that I spent a glorious Wednesday engulfed in music and story, and be forever grateful for my opportunities to connect with such amazing people.
Thank you, Flynn Center for the opportunity and the tickets. And thank you Damien, et al. For everything.