Utne Reader Visionary: Bernice Johnson Reagon

There aren’t many singer-songwriters who are also professors of history, but the combination comes naturally to Bernice Johnson Reagon. She is Distinguished Professor at Washington’s American University, curator emeritus at the Smithsonian, and guiding light of Sweet Honey in the Rock, an a cappella group that has preserved and carried forward traditions of African-American song for two decades now. For Reagon, scholarship on black freedom and gospel songs old and new, performance for a dedicated body of fans, and hard work in the trenches of activism (she was one of the original Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee Freedom Singers in the 1960s) are an indissoluble unity, like celebration and struggle.

“The discussion that surfaced after the O.J. Simpson trial and the Million Man March disturbed me. For the first time, commentators said, people are becoming aware that black and white people don’t think the same way about things. What disturbed me was the idea that this state of affairs was somehow negative. What’s wrong? the commentators asked.

“Nothing’s wrong. We come from different histories, and it’s positive that we finally see and admit the differences. African-Americans know that nobody can survive in a minority position with only one point of view–we have always had to understand the majority view as well. In the effort to understand the story of America, we’re still not getting enough help from many people who share the story, because they come from a culture that says that their view is the only one.

Well, I say to them: Welcome to prekindergarten! You will not die if you discover that there are more lines out there than just your own. In fact, you’ll discover that you will have an advantage if you know more of them!”

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