Sometimes I plan courses I would like to teach if I were still an adjunct or a high school teacher. One course I have in mind traces the history of racism in this country, particularly the way we have treated African American citizens. It would open with Twelve Years a Slave by Solomon Northrup, go on to Slavery By Another Name by Doublas A. Blackmon. Then I would assign The Warmth of Other Suns by Angela Wilkerson, and on to Taylor Branch’s books on Martin Luther King and finally end with The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander. Interspersed in there would be novels and essays: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, poetry by Langston Hughes, essays by James Baldwin and Martin Luther King. I would include modern poets, Elizabeth Alexander, Yusef Koumanyaka, Patricial Smith, Marilyn Nelson, and others.
As I was talking about this course with a friend, I ended by saying, how depressing a course it could be, how heavy with the weight of what we have done and continue to do in this country, including redlining in our own city, to many of our black citizens. Mary Moore Easter smiled at me, and said, “Ah, but we have the music.” And in that moment I felt a release. My course expanded into a rich combination of music and history, song and fiction, essays and jazz: or any combination of those.
Not that music overshadows the debt we owe or the truth of all that has gone before us who live now. Rather, the songs, from shouts, to gospel to blues, to Muscle Shoals R&B, to hot jazz to bebop, to fusion to hip hop to rap to the entwining of all this, every night, in one city or another across the country, are a testament to the tenacity of a people, to the fierce will of the collective, the ability to survive. I do not mean to romanticize or hint that music can minimize the effects of oppression. I do mean to say we cannot forget the phenomenal gifts we have received, and too often ignore.
If anyone wants to co-teach my suggested class, I am open to proposing it. It would be a one year course meeting as often as possible. And even in that time we would not get to explore nearly all that might be included in the multiple sided prism of black American history. We would survive the nights together, black and white, because we would have the music.
I have often wondered what I would have done at the toughest times in my life without the music. I have withdrawn into it. I have danced to it when I am utterly alone in m living room. I have drifted off to it nights when I am overwhelmed with grief or fear or worry. It is what separates and joins me with young people in my life as I get older, and it also joins the young with their elders. I have taught students who have laughed when I put on Al Green or Aretha Franklin, often saying,”Oh you putting on my grandma’s music. She play Etta James lady all the time I be visiting her.” And with that laugh, they pick up the tune and sing along with Al Green, Smokey Robinson. I miss that as much as I miss anything from my years in the schools.
You know, if you have read these occasional thoughts of mine before, where this might go next. And it does. Where is the music? Where is it in those schools we pass by every day or enter every morning? Oh, I know, in individual classrooms, or in some schools it is there. It is there in the hallways as kids walk with their ears full of the new band, the new cut, as they pass to the next class. It is there after school as students use music rooms to practice with each other, or at assemblies when a single child sings a solo that breaks your heart. My question is more about the presence of the music as a study, as a discipline worthy of evaluation, of careful nurturing, of extra time, extra attention? We do have music in some schools. Yet we have it by luck in many cases, or by the work of parent groups in wealthier districts who campaign for funds to hire music teachers, provide instruments, take students on tours to perform, print programs for school concerts. It is by chance that some of our children get this joy in their schools.
Is the discounting of song part of a desperate need to rigidify, maintain control of our students? Or is it because the test has not been created that can measure joy in movement, or harmony, or dance? Some of the most moving times in my life have been connected to song. Seeing my daughter-in- law, Johanna, dance with my father- in- law Manny at bar mitzvahs was a marvel to me, how elegant he looked, how easily she followed his every step. Placing Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald on the CD player, singing “You Can’t Take That Away From Me” and moving my father’s wheel chair up next to the sound, seeing him, so still most of the time those last days, move his head to the sound, while outside April snow fell all around us, created a sense of reconciliation between us like nothing else had been able to do. Watching students at Work Opportunity Center nod their heads to what they were hearing on their headphones, their bodies more relaxed and less anxious was a relief to me, a balm of sorts. Even debates among students about country western vs. rock, or hip hop vs. soul, with accompanying examples, were some of the most humorous, enjoyable times in my classroom.
What you could do with music in secondary schools is infinite in its possibility. Our obsession with fixed curriculums rarely stress a kind of “musical intelligence” and this means that we deny our students so much. We deny them a great seriousness for one: the discipline of music study, the work and diligence of creating a sound together. We relegate this to the once a week slot, or the six weeks a year slot in our students’ lives.
In the poorest schools especially, where the emphasis is on drill, overly structured focused learning– joyless days after days in our schoolrooms.—we lose much. What could you do if you built an entire year course around music? What if you used it to teach math, science, and literature and history? In my most paranoid state of mind, I wonder if keeping our schools so obsessed with reading and math in a very narrow context, if keeping our history classes so focused on Western interpretations and white supremacist points of view, isn’t a deliberate effort to dampen the possibilities for some students. If we treat them like automatons, they will work in our factories or kitchens or offices, doing repetitive tasks. Is this what we are preparing our students to do, to be?
Or if is simply that music has always been left out of priorities, has never been thought of as a necessary means of survival. If we took all the money we spend on tests and test preparation, and poured it into instruments, teachers, visiting artists, visits to concerts, and retooled our history classes and our literature classes to include song in a multi disciplined approach to teaching, what would school feel like to our children? Would we see the dance, the nod of the head, the laughter, right there in our classrooms instead of only on the fringes of schools life?
Years ago I believe there was a space for this in our public schools. We could tap into the wild imagining our children possess. And they learned. All this time, they learned. Now we are afraid. Now we insist our boys and girls, our young men and women, keep the music to a minimum. What would it be like if it became central to the curriculum and expectations? What do we fear so much now that we follow orders to militarize our classrooms? To whose benefit is it to remove the joy from our buildings?
And then there is visual art and its disappearance. Don’t get me started on color. It is too damn painful .