Students Engrossed by Visiting Scholars' Approach to African-American History and Music
March 10, 2017
A couple with a lifetime of combined expertise in music, African-American history, and the craft of storytelling captivated students and faculty during their recent special teaching appointment.
Dr. Kim Harris and Reggie Harris taught and performed at University Campus over several days through the Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellows program, which is offered through The Council of Independent Colleges. The program provides an opportunity to bring prominent professionals and other leaders from outside academia to campuses where they can interact with students—and is a distinguishing feature of the liberal-arts based education at Saint Leo.
The Harrises’ visit began with a special concert—open to the public—that explored music from the Underground Railroad to contemporary times. Audience members were asked to join along frequently. Between songs, the Harrises explained special meanings and coded messages embedded in the lyrics of American spirituals dating back to slaveholding times.
In the song “Let Us Break Bread Together,” the Harrises said, the song signals a call for a secret meeting. The line “with my face to the rising sun,” could tell the time and place of the meeting: in the mornings, before work begins, on the east side of the plantation or owner’s land parcel.
In another song, “going home” could refer to reunion with separated family members—possibly in Canada or non-slaveholding states. So music, including sometimes spiritual music, could also serve as a tool of resistance.
During the week, the Harrises sometimes either sang or performed spoken-word pieces for classroom teaching purposes. Sociology faculty member Dr. Janis Prince asked the couple to relate the story of the Flying African from slave folklore for a class on racial and ethnic relations. “They sang, acted, and did the finest job of storytelling imaginable,” Dr. Prince said.
In fine arts classes, the Harrises spoke with students about the craft of storytelling. They engaged students in an exercise of thinking about an interesting fact from their own background, and using that as inspiration or the basis for a song or story.
One student who spent time in two classes with the Harrises, in addition to attending the concert, wrote that “I’ve never had so much fun singing and clapping my hands all while learning at the same time.”
The couple noted that in addition to performing, Reggie Harris is involved in efforts to encourage people to learn the stories of their elders, especially everyday people, who were present and perhaps active during the civil rights movement. “Talk to your relatives about their memories of that time,” he said. In the context of a family visit, he suggested, watching a video from an online source might work as a prompt.
Kim Harris, who is Catholic, also had a chance to discuss her scholarship and involvement with Black Catholic activities. Notably, she has recorded “Welcome Table: A Mass of Spirituals.” She worked on the Mass for her doctorate from Union Theological Seminary, taking care to make the Mass easy for parishioners to sing.
And, during an interview with theology faculty member Dr. Stephen Okey, Kim Harris spoke about the late Sister Thea Bowman of the Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration. Bowman was only in her 50s when she died in 1990, but was influential in advancing the interests of Black Catholics within the Church. The interview (which includes singing) will be available in an upcoming podcast from Dr. Okey.