By Kiyanna Stewart
Internationally-renowned Civil Rights activist, singer, and scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon is a woman who believes in the power of song as a medium to bring people together for a common purpose.
At a recent visit to Rutgers University- The State University of New Jersey on February 18 in conjunction with the English department's ongoing "Writers At Rutgers Reading Series," she proudly announced, "The very first time I experienced music as a means to articulate the needs of our community was during the Civil Rights Movement,” she told her audience. “I knew that as students, we could bring about the transformation of a culture. So, I decided to move myself against racism.”
Students of various academic concentrations gathered in the Rutgers Student Center to hear the self-proclaimed, "song talker" expound on her history as a member of SNCC (Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee), as well as offer life-altering advice on how to navigate through a world engulfed by capitalism, racism and sexism.
Reagon is also the founder of an all-African American a cappella ensemble, established in 1973, called Sweet Honey in the Rock. The Grammy award-winning troupe has traveled the world over the past three decades, spreading awareness of the importance of singing in oral traditions.
"The songs are only a vehicle to get to the singing," professed Reagon. She later added, "Singing is not an organizing element, it's an organizing experience.”
Christine Awe, Rutgers Junior and Women's and Gender Studies major, said, "It was important for me to be there and witness what this living legend has to say. After all these years, she remains relevant to social, political and artistic issues. I'm honored to be here."
Reagon began her lecture, "Notes from the Cultural Autobiography of a Freedom Singer: 1961..." with a song which originated during American slavery, called, "Come and Go With Me To That Land." Students and faculty in attendance listened to her sing the traditional Negro Spiritual, soon catching on that they were supposed to join her. By the end of her lecture, the audience sang in harmony, confident in the, for some, newly-learned lyrics.
Rutgers sophomore and Africana Studies minor, Therese Eggleston told reporters "This was a truly liberating experience - To begin singing in a room with people you don’t know, and not care. It was moving and unlike anything I've ever experienced.”
Reagon not only sang. She focused her lecture around several formative moments in her life - being thrown in jail during college for protesting the arrest of five African American Albany State College students for buying train tickets at a “Whites Only“ teller, finding her identity and passion in a world that continuously imposed its own demands on her, as well as her discovery of music as a political and social statement used to incite change.
Students were not the only attendees who expressed gratitude for the scholarship Reagon has performed throughout her lifetime. Adjunct Professor Bill Davis teaches courses in the Africana Studies department, and told The Raritan Journal, “Bernice Johnson Reagon asked some very difficult questions tonight. Not only did she question social and political institutions, known for perpetuating racism, but she asked of the individual as well. This lecture, I’m sure, was the catalyst for change in someone." Reagon did in fact ask thought provoking questions, which left many students and faculty questioning the very fabric of their identity.
Edward Steele, a Rutgers freshman and Biology major, recalled her suggestion “that one will lose themself if they don’t do something catastrophic to find themself. This is just what students need to hear, as motivation during rough times.”