Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon is keynote speaker for Denison’s 2009 MLK Celebration
Date of Event: January 26, 2009
Posted: January 21, 2009 / Last Updated: December 4, 2009
Keynote speaker for this year’s the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, Bernice Johnson Reagon, will present her address at 1 p.m. on Monday, Jan. 26, at Swasey Chapel (200 Chapel Drive). The convocation is free and open to the public.
“At every campus I’ve been on recently, the students have been engaged, not just in national politics, but state and local issues, in ways I’ve not felt since the voter registration efforts we undertook in the Civil Rights movement.” As a scholar, composer, teacher, “songtalker” and producer, Reagon is drawn to the energy of engagement and voices that are asking to be heard.
Born in southwestern Georgia in a time when African Americans were still blocked from free and full participation in elections, whether local or national, Reagon was raised a Baptist preacher’s daughter. She learned the hymns of her tradition in a church that couldn’t afford a piano, so a cappella singing was the heart of worship.
Young Bernice learned that her voice could rally others, and not only at church. She earned scholarships for her singing, but her college career was interrupted when the administration at Albany (Ga.) State College took a dislike to her arrests related to the Civil Rights Movement — so much so that she was expelled for “conduct unbecoming an Albany State student,” Reagon says with a laugh.
After marrying Cordell Reagon, who also was a member of the original Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (or SNCC) Freedom Singers quartet, she paused again while a student at Spelman College in Atlanta to have their two children.
Ultimately, she finished her degree as a single mother, and the quality of her work led her to Washington, D.C., and Howard University, where she earned a Ph.D. in history.
Woven through these academic pursuits, Reagon has been involved in the arts, both as a curator with the Smithsonian Institution — preserving the material and musical culture of the African diaspora from slavery and the Civil Rights Movement — and in performance. In addition to her involvement with the Freedom Singers and the Harambee Singers in Atlanta, she also was founder of the Grammy-winning a capella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, after coming to Washington to work as vocal director of the D.C. Repertory Company.
Teaching has been central to Reagon’s career, whether during concert performances, or in conversations with student groups, or through discourse in public media. She spent more than a decade putting together what became the Peabody Award-winning series for National Public Radio “Wade In the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions,” and later was consultant, composer and performer for the PBS series “Eye on the Prize” and “We Shall Overcome.”
Reagon has received prestigious public recognition for her work, including a MacArthur “genius grant” Fellowship in 1989. But much of the work to which she has committed her life has taken many years, even decades, to pull together and garner both institutional and practical support. Yet she has maintained an amazing record of publication and productivity, including producing 17 albums with Sweet Honey in the Rock, curating multiple national touring exhibits, and authoring many books and essays over the years.
“My mother did steps,” Reagon says, with great emphasis on the word “steps.” “She always had a goal in mind. She didn’t always know if the resources or the opportunities would be there, but she focused on taking the next step — which might be a half step! You start to shift your weight and swing that foot out, and where will that swinging foot fall? You don’t always know, but I can’t imagine not moving until everything is locked down. You have to keep moving.”
Reagon is retired from touring with Sweet Honey in the Rock. She is a professor emeritus at the American University in Washington and curator emeritus at the National Museum of American History of the Smithsonian, but she’s still moving, still focused on the next step. In recent years, she has written an opera libretto with the famed avant-garde composer Robert Wilson, and a ballet score.
She has been looking forward to the events that will swirl around her home in Washington, D.C., just days before her keynote address at Denison — especially the inauguration of President Barack Obama on Jan. 20 — but she doesn’t want anyone to forget too quickly the amazing effort and energy that went into the election campaign itself.
“I have a particular appreciation of the work that was done in Ohio,” she says.
Lisa Scott, Denison’s director of institutional equity and diversity, says Reagon’s participation in this year’s the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration is important for several reasons. “She is a witness to the Civil Rights Movement,” Scott says. “While still a student, she put her life and her values on the line. As a witness, activist, author, and full participant, Dr. Reagon has a powerful story to tell. And as a pre-eminent scholar of freedom music, she can share her great breadth of knowledge regarding the power of music in struggle.”
For more information about Dr. Reagon, link to her Web site at www.bernicejohnsonreagon.com/
For an overview of Denison’s 2009 Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, please link here.
- DU -
CALENDAR LISTING: Denison University, Granville — Bernice Johnson Reagon, keynote speaker for Densison University’s the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebrations, at 1 p.m. on Mon., Jan. 26, at Swasey Chapel (200 Chapel Drive). Free and open to the public.
Denison University, founded in 1831, is an independent, residential liberal arts institution located in Granville, Ohio. A highly selective college enrolling 2,100 full-time undergraduate students from all 50 states and dozens of foreign countries, Denison is a place where innovative faculty and motivated students collaborate in rigorous scholarship, civic engagement and the cultivation of independent thinking.
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