“The Songs are Free”: Black Oral Tradition and the Classroom

I was especially moved by Bernice Johnson Reagon’s articulations about the oral tradition within Black churches and Civil Rights movements and later our unique dynamic in the classroom. Bill Moyers jokingly comments that his experience with the Southern Christian (white) churches is vastly different from Bernice’s. He jokes that “This Little Light of Mine” was taught to him via the church as a song about humility and submissiveness to god. Conversely, Bernice Johnson Reagon emphasizes that the song in the black oral tradition emphasizes the exact opposite and that the usage of the song, in Civil Rights movements and elsewhere, is actively undoing the oppressive expectation for black people to be silent and unseen. 

Dr. Beth has composed classroom dynamics that are worth examining as they, in my view, interact with the texts. Often in classes, the rhetorical dynamic centers around the professor as the source of rightness/wrongness. I have noticed -this may be a tenuous link – that our classroom dynamic is frequently decentralized. This is also balanced with some lecture/important context. I think it was on Monday that Dr. Beth had roughly a 30 minute period of time after some lecture/questions where she took notes and left the conversation to the class. I see this as a process that is tantamount, and perhaps relational, to Reagon’s examples of the songs being thrown back to the people rather than through and authoritative religious figure. This “democratic” process was incredible different than any other class discussion I have participated in as the discussion was totally run by the students, and in my evaluation, the discussion was successful. The flattening of classroom power dynamics , even brief periods, I think is a brilliant way not only to engage in a way that usually does not happen in classrooms that yields a deep discussion and focus on what we say to each other.

Furthermore, it is, in a similar way, practicing what Bernice Johnson Reagon advocates for, and also I think related to what Morrison does in her novels by giving the story largely to the characters, often with different versions and observations about reality, rather than a monolithic voice. Specifically, Arianna made the excellent connection between Reagon’s articulations and Baby Suggs in Beloved. The “we” Arianna points out pertains to the novels we are reading as well as the dynamics being explored in the classroom.



The Songs are Free: Bernice Johnson Reagon and African American Music

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