My very first tenure-track job was connected to teacher education: I worked with undergraduates who were trying to secure a teaching certificate to work specifically in urban schools. In the early part of the program, before students were turned off by the curriculum and faculty (the faculty simply thought themselves too difficult and interesting for the students), the classes were full and enrolled mostly first-generation students of color who wanted to go back and teach in their urban communities. I loved the students, especially the early entries, and especially one young woman, who I will call Maya.
Maya was/is an amazing singer who chooses to use her talent for sacred music. As a high school student, she attended a predominantly black performing arts high school and that is where she did her student teaching. As a singer/composer/pianist and history major, her goal was to incorporate the arts into history education so that her black students did not experience their talent solely in their art classes but also, intellectually, across the curriculum. She was teaching American history and her cooperating teacher allowed her to implement the Civil Rights curriculum. I visited when students did their first presentations.
The presentations were a kind of acting/ singing/ music-playing extravaganza with every group member making speeches also. Each group was responsible for researching and presenting some central issue that galvanized black communities in this moment and had to use their talent to represent the depth of that galvanization. One young man, bless his heart, took the podium. It was obvious he had not prepared anything, but that did not stop him from talking. Before he finished his first sentence, one young woman started singing these words:
Oh Lord, I’m strivin’,
tryin’ to make it through this barren land,
but as I go from day to day,
I can hear my Savior say,
“trust me child, come on and hold my hand.”
I’m comin’ up on the rough side of the mountain…
Here’s the song in case, unlike this young woman, you are not familiar with it.
By the time she hit the chorus, the whole class was singing. Now let me just say this again: they were singing… in complex harmonies. This young lead singer clearly knew this young man had not prepared for his presentation, as was often the case, so while that young man was stumbling through his presentation, the young woman just sang more. And what you have gots to understand here is that THIS YOUNG WOMAN COULD SANG! Ya heard?! Not sing, but SANG! Meanwhile… over in my corner… I fell out. Literally. I had tears coming out of my eyes, because I was laughing so hard. I was hunched over in them little high school seats with the armrest because my sides were hurting me. My man at the podium, however, was not phased at all. He kept right on talking, not a single word about the Civil Rights Movement. Unlike me, no student in that class laughed and Maya didn’t think anything of the singing. Her response was simply that this is the way the class processes things and lets you know when you are not doing your work.
I was also taken aback at the young woman who knew all of F.C. Barnes’s lyrics. “Rough Side of the Mountain” came out in 1982 so I really don’t associate teenagers in the 21st century with this music. The phrase, “Rough Side of the Mountain,” was common in the 1980s given the Gospel compilation of the same title (click here for the commercial). Yet this woman knew ALL of the lyrics, not just the phrase, even though her home church features one of the youngest ministers in the area and one of the most contemporary-R&B-influenced gospel choirs. The class, from Maya’s recollection, had never sang the song before but they know the form and know when and how to repeat/answer a lead singer’s call. The mental rolodex that students can span from their full immersion in black cultural arts means that any one student can pull out a song like “Rough Side of the Mountain” right on time.
Maya, however, had a difficult time in the education program when it came to student teaching. While I was in awe that students could organize the chorus and lyrics of a song that is decades old at the drop of a dime, other faculty would visit a lesson just as this one and hear only chaos. They thought Maya did not have good classroom management. Black students singing out of turn? Not just talking, but singing? Black cultural arts in history? What is happening here? After hearing so much negativity from the college supervisors visiting her class, Maya followed my advice: ask the program supervisors to do a demo lesson in the class so that we can see the control techniques that they think work so well with black students. Yeah, that ended THAT. Not a single one of them fools stepped up to the plate to teach Maya’s classes, but they retaliated in other ways against her. Much like her students, Maya processed her world through song. When she was told to keep a teaching journal, she asked if she could write in poetic and musical form. Because the answer was yes, it was not uncommon for Maya to process a lesson she taught by writing lyrics with musical notes written on the page. She was told this was inappropriate for the academy… um, yes, for a teaching journal. I guess when she asked if she could write in lyrical form, they had not fully imagined that she would do just that. Maya was one of the last black students who I saw make it through that program and I truly hope no other black student ever enrolls.
I think about Maya and those young people a lot and this seems especially true on Sundays. I spend many of my Sunday mornings listening to various radio deejays who play Black Gospel musicians with my mother (I do not own a radio but my mother does). I even know the names of the deejays that I like: they are the ones who know how to play contemporary Gospel along with Sam Cooke, The Blind Boys of Alabama, Rosetta Tharpe, Dorothy Love Coates, etc in seamless ways. There’s a story that’s being told with the music these deejays play; there’s a place that they are taking you to. Sometimes, especially on the college radio stations, the playlist is so hyper-constructed that you just know this person learned about Black Spiritual Music from a book in a college class, not from ever living in it. I imagine that for these deejays, the kind of black cultural expressions and values like spontaneity, improvisation, signifyin, and testifyin are just, well, too chaotic. Just not tidy-whitey enough. When I think of that, I like those students in that class even more. And on Sundays like this, I value a culture even more that names the very nuanced violences of anti-blackness by reminding us that some of us are coming up on the rough side of the mountain… but we will sho nuff make it in.