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Leaving the Space Better Than You Found It Through Song: Music, Diversity, and Mission in One Black

Student Organization

SHERRY L. DECK M AN Ithaca College

In recounting the history and present dynamics in the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, Sherry Deckman presents a portrait of what it means to leave a space better than you found it through song. The story of KuumbaHarvards oldest black student organization and now its largest multicultural organizationis told through the experiences of Sheldon K. X. Reid, the groups professional director. Issues and tensions of diversity and community surface, and we learn how Kuumba has become a space where lost cultural practices are revived through music to create a campus home and family for members of diverse backgrounds.

Prelude
Lift every voice and sing, Til earth and heaven ring, Ring with the harmonies of Liberty; Let our rejoicing rise High as the listening skies, Let it resound loud as the rolling sea. Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us, Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us; Facing the rising sun of our new day begun, Let us march on til victory is won. ......... May we forever stand, True to our God, True to our native land. James Weldon Johnson
Harvard Educational Review Vol. 83 No. 2 Summer 2013 Copyright by the President and Fellows of Harvard College

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Ago, Sheldon calls out.1 His resounding voice breaks through the palpable buzz of energy that lls the air in the few minutes of rehearsal before the singing ensues. As choir members exchange greetings, even longtime friends who see each other daily appear as though they are being reunited with long lost family members in these moments. Yet, understanding the signal that rehearsal is about to begin, Kuumbabes2 immediately stop conversing and respond in unison, Ame. They return to their seats, readying themselves for Sheldons direction. Before they begin to warm up with scales, he asks the choir to join him in the ritual of marking the Kuumba rehearsal space as distinct from all the various places from which they are coming that evening: Lets take a moment of silence to center and remember why were here. As I scan the choir, I notice students who are light skinned, dark skinned, and brown skinned, those I know to be Asian or white, and some who identify as multiracial. They are sporting what seems like standard college attire jeans and T-shirts, sneakers, ballet ats, and hoodies. There are also a variety of hairstyles. All of the men I can seeSheldon includedhave short or buzzed hair and low fades, regardless of race. The women don various stylestwists, dreads, braids (with weaves and without), chemically straightened hair, naturally straight hair, natural hair, curly hairand in all shades from light blonde to deep ebony and even a few strands of blue. We are gathered in a large multipurpose room on Harvards campus known as the Penthouse, a no-frills fourth oor of a student activities building. The room, which seems to sacrice aesthetics for utility, is simply constructed, with blonde wood walls on two sides whose panels look like they might be moveable. A pea green wall-to-wall carpet covers the oor, and oor-to-ceiling windows make up one wall. Metal chairs in shades of institutional orange, brown, and blue sit on dollies at the back of the room. Chairs are also set up in three sections where students sit arranged by musical partaltos, sopranos, and tenors and basses. At the front of the room there is a baby grand piano where Sheldon, in his uniform of jeans, sneakers, and a crimson T-shirt that pops against his deep brown complexion, is perched, ready to begin. Though I have already spent about a year and a half observing rehearsals and interviewing members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, the universitys oldest black student organization and now its largest multicultural organization,3 tonight I am here specically to observe Sheldons practice as the professional director of the choir. I was originally drawn to the organization for my research because of its openness toward having members from outside of the black diaspora. During my time at Harvard, there appeared to be a tension between the ideal of celebrating diversitydiversity broadly dened as the presence and potential intermingling of students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds in a common spaceand the existence of clear divisions along race lines in some campus spaces. The dynamics in Kuumba, a group with racially diverse members performing dance and music from the African diaspora, were unlike elsewhere on campus and in broader society. I was curi280

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ous what meaning members of various backgrounds made of their participation in such an organization. During my research with the choir, it became apparent to me that to understand Kuumba I needed to understand Sheldons role in the organization and the way his work as director has affected the students and the mission of the choir. Sheldon was a presencesometimes heard and explicitly mentioned, and other times just feltin every interview I conducted with students. For many students, he was a symbol of Kuumba. The rst time I heard the ago, ame call to attention in the Kuumba context was a little over a year ago at one of the rst rehearsals I attended. At that rehearsal, Sheldon explained to the choir that ago, ame is a West African call to attention that needs to immediately be followed by silence. He was giving this talk well into the rehearsal, so I imagined he wasnt pleased with how long it had taken the choir to settle down after the call earlier that evening. He told them, Its disrespectful to not only the speaker but the space, the tradition, and the culture were trying to represent when there is not silence after the call. I sat there wondering, Was everyone present trying to represent West African culture? Or perhaps he was talking about some other culture? I also wondered whether he was addressing certain students in particularwas this just for the benet of the nonblack members? A year later, it is clear that Sheldon demands that all Kuumbabes observe the groups mission, as spoken at every concert and as written on concert programs: to express the creativity and spirituality of Black people in a way that leaves a space better than it was found. To Sheldon and Kuumbabes, this means working together as a collective to promote the uplift of the black community through music, dance, and writing. Sheldon also feels that all membersregardless of race or ethnicityhave much to learn about the legacy of black people.
Its all learning because in many ways its a historical thing. Its learning about where we were, where we came from. You know, the arrangers who wrote the songs, what place were they in? What was their social situation? What was their historical situation? And nobody knows that stuff, right? So to me, its for everybody.

Indeed, Sheldon himself started off as a Kuumba member during his freshman year at Harvard in 1992. Coming from a very-well-off black community on Long Island, Sheldon says that it was through joining Kuumba that he learned what it meant to him to be a black man in the United States. The son of a Trinidadian mother and Jamaican father, he had always considered himself Caribbean American. Like other recent immigrant families from Africa and the Caribbean, Sheldon didnt necessarily learn African American customs and traditions growing up in the same way as those whose families had been in this country for generations. But through the lessons learned at Kuumba, he began learning and embracing this whole blackness aspect, which has become such a huge part of who I am.

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Under the tutelage of the director at the time, Mr. Robert Winfrey, Sheldon learned much about diasporic blackness, history, and music. Sheldon describes Mr. Winfrey, who directed the choir for over twenty years and still guest directs on occasion, as phenomenal and very old school, the kind of man that just doesnt play. Mr. Winfreys style was to run the show during rehearsal while still giving the students space and guidance to learn songs and work on their music afterward. Many of the lessons Sheldon learned from hima lot in the spirituals about reading music, about dynamics, about breathing . . . how to sing thingswere gleaned through close observation. As one example of what he learned from Mr. Winfrey, Sheldon tells the story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers and similar choirs that, in the late nineteenth century, traveled the country performing to raise money for their schools after it had become pass to give money to the freed slaves to educate them.4 Some of those singers never graduated from Fisk University, choosing instead to give themselves completely to the ongoing social struggle to keep schools for blacks open during Reconstruction. While this story of the Fisk Jubilee Singers sacrice for the betterment of the larger black community in the United States conveys one lesson of what it means to be black in this country, another lesson Sheldon takes away from this story is about making black spirituals playable to a largely white populace. In attempting to garner white patronage to earn money for schools, choirs like these gentried black music, resulting in what came to be known as the concertized spiritual, a form that was respected and taught by Mr. Winfrey and his contemporaries. With both admiration for those who sacriced so that black students might have a legacy of education and disdain for the society that required that they alter black music in his voice, Sheldon concludes,
[It] is an important part of our history . . . because its beautiful, and it is a part of where we come from, but two because it speaks a lot about our ability to share ourselves, but also just the idea that . . . whether it was true or not, we felt that it . . . wasnt good enough as it was, as it is . . . Its from us, but closer to them.

Prompted by the teachings of Mr. Winfrey and by his own experience in Kuumba, Sheldon, who started out at Harvard as a biochemistry concentrator, switched his career goal from medicine to education, wanting to give back to others. Today he is a public school teacher in the afuent Boston suburb of Newton. He nds that through directing Kuumba and teaching he can contribute meaningfully to society at large and give back to the black community specically. Furthermore, he feels that everyone who joins Kuumba, regardless of background, has something to learn,
I didnt know anything about, like, [that] the idea of blackness was a very different thing. My musical experience, what I knew about gospel and spirituals, I learned it all here. And so . . . everyone is here to learn. Even the black people who come, a lot of them have no knowledge of any of this stuff, so its not like they come with a genetic understanding.

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Tonights choir rehearsal is coming to a close, but there is time for one nal lesson that Sheldon hopes will enable students to connect with the song [they have been rehearsing] in some way and foster some kind of emotional base [from which] to sing. Sheldon asks, Does anyone know what a balm is? Its an ointment for medicinal purposes. Then he addresses the choir about the Bible verse on which the spiritual Balm in Gilead is based. Taking some creative license, he says, Balm in Gilead is like a brand name, like its Q-Tips, not cotton swabs. Then he asks, Do you know the story of Joseph? This call and response must be an instructional strategy the choir has seen before, as they respond in unison, No, tell us! And so he does. He explains that Joseph is beaten up and left and that some traders from Gilead pass by and that these merchants, to whom Joseph is sold, were known to carry the well-known Balm of Gilead, which refers to both the medicinal balm and the spiritual balm found in Jesuss healing. So, he says, you know where [the song is] coming from. Lessons such as these that provide implicit and explicit teachings about struggle in the black community address Sheldons concern that there are certain ideas that were central to the black community that no one was really teaching, because your reality taught you every day. So once that reality, or, rather, the surface of what that reality looked like, shifted, in order to maintain that knowledge you had to teach it. Unfortunately, Sheldon says, No one was really prepared, because no one ever had to teach it before. So every year a little is lost. Therefore, Kuumba becomes a space for teaching and for learning. Traditions that used to be carried out in black schools and churches and communities are revived: The whole point of Kuumba is that we continue to learn . . . and not just learn for our own sake, but learning so that we can teach other people. The interweaving of song and ritual offers experiential learning to members of all racial backgrounds about black history and strugglean experience that Sheldon nds particularly important for the black students.

Verse I: There Is a Way In


I hear him before I see him. Distinctive humming of an unrecognizable tune resonates from the stairwell. Sheldon K. X. Reid, the third professional director of the Kuumba Singers in the groups more-than-four-decade history, breathes music and lives Kuumba, the music that kept [him] alive at Harvard, which was so challenging for him as an undergrad. On this particular night, I am waiting for Sheldon in the deserted lobby of the Harvard College Student Organization Center at Hilles, or the SOCH, as students call it. The SOCH houses the Kuumba ofce and the Penthouse, the groups regular rehearsal space. The imposing concrete and brick building stands on a street corner at the remote edge of campus known as the Quad and seems to take up at least half of a city block with all of its emptiness. It used to house a small library, which was permanently closed due to recent
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budget cuts. Now, when you enter the building through the door that once led to computer terminals and book stacks, its a ghost town. The computers and stacks are gone, though the un-peopled circulation desk remains.5 When I rst began attending Kummba rehearsals, I wondered if the group had chosen to rehearse in the Quad because of the racial history associated with the area. A number of years ago, Harvard moved to randomized housing assignments for upperclassmen. Prior to that, sophomores, juniors, and seniors were able to select which of the twelve residence hallsor houses, as they are known at Harvardthey would like to live in. Through that selfselecting process, the Quad eventually became known as the center of black life at Harvard College. Despite the randomized housing policy, the Quad is still seen as a place where a sizable number of black undergraduates live. But the 2007 Quad incident called into question the racial relations on campus and brought to the fore underlying tensions. A couple of black undergraduate organizations were having a eld day on the grassy lawn in the Quad when a white undergraduate who did not recognize the students called Harvard University Police to report a loud group of non-Harvard students congregating in the space. Police ofcers arrived and asked all of those gathered to show their ID cards. The black students were said to be enraged that their rightful presence on campus would be questioned by, rst, the student who called the police and then by the police themselves. The Quad incident sparked an investigation into campus police practices and prompted a public commitment by the university to work on issues related to racial awareness within its police force. On a campus that many complain has too little space for students to congregate in large groups and hold large performances, Kuumbas claim to the SOCH Penthouse for two-to-three-hour rehearsals every Tuesday and Thursday night likely speaks to the groups standing. Yet in some respects, it also speaks to Sheldons assertion that, in the past, the university treated the choir and its members as second-class citizens, particularly in terms of securing rehearsal space: Weve always been just kind of pushed around, pushed around, pushed around. Even now, on occasion, Kuumba is required to rehearse in other, less optimal spaces when events are scheduled in the Penthouse. Tonight I sit on a crimson, cushioned armchair placed in front of the defunct circulation desk and watch the elevator, waiting for Sheldon to come down from the third oor, where the Kuumba ofce is located. The elevator and even the front door of the building, for that matterhas been the cause of much frustration during my time conducting research with the choir. Both are accessible only with a Harvard ID that has been programmed to grant access to this particular building. I was surprised to learn that even Sheldon, the director of the choir for over a decade, didnt have an ID card that would grant him the privileged access to the building and elevator. One time he and I had to wait at least ten minutes for one of the Harvard undergraduate members to arrive to take us upstairs.
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While this ID card system is Harvards way of keeping unwanted people out of the SOCH, this restriction strikes me as a stark contrast to Kuumba itself, which invites everyone and anyone in, including many choir members who travel from all around the greater Boston area to be Kuumbabes. In fact, the only requirement for entry to the Kuumba Singers is a desire to celebrate black spirituality and creativity. Its not even required that youre black or Christian or a Harvard student or can sing on-keyall issues I worried about for quite some time when I began this research. I was generally concerned about how I might be received as a researcher infringing on what felt like a sacred space for group members. But, I was also worried about not conforming to my imagined expectations of group members. My anxiety stemmed in part from having been told rather clearly by my best friends in elementary school that I had to be the band manager while they got to go on tour performing Natalie Coles Pink Cadillac at imaginary gigs in my living room, thus keeping my excruciatingly off-key singing quiet. I was also concerned that I would be found out for not being a devoutly practicing Christian. I worried, too, that I wouldnt be black enough because I have a white mother. But all of these concerns quickly dissipated as I became caught up in the welcoming environment of Kuumba rehearsals. As I tire from watching the elevator not move, I hear the humming, and Sheldons sturdy six-foot-plus frame nally emerges from the stairwell. I follow him back up the stairs. When we get to the third oor, he gives me one of his characteristically generous and playful smiles, all the more luminous given his scant ebony beard and mustache. Then, he ashes his ID card, swiping it through the card reader. To my surprise, the door opens. I nally got my ID access, Sheldon announces.

Verse II: We Been Tested and Testifying


Sheldon talks about white people joining the choir as if it never was a controversial issue. When I ask specically about how and when the group decided to accept nonblack members, he is about to say that it has always been open but stops himself short. As long as Ive known Kuumba, its pretty much been anyone is welcome . . . But when it was almost all black, very few white people are going to feel comfortable stepping into that space, right? Perhaps, but given that white students werent even permitted to attend Kuumbas rstever spring concert in 1971 makes me think otherwise, there certainly seems to have been times when nonblack members were not always embraced or permitted in Kuumba. Even the opening About Kuumba note in the 2010 fortieth-anniversary spring concert program alludes to the fraught nature of the groups demographic changes: The choirs current racial and ethnic diversity is both a remarkable testimony to, and a relentless test of the groups mission to celebrate black spirituality and creativity while leaving the space called Harvard, and its surrounding community, better than we found it. The
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history of Kuumbas formation also speaks to a more tenuous place for white and other nonblack members in the organization. The creation of KuumbaSwahili for to createcame out of student strikes at Harvard in 1970 in the era of racial unrest following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and was intended to provide a community for the black students on campus. In a retrospective posted on the Kuumba Web site, Hubert E. Walters, the very rst director of the Kuumba Singers, writes about the groups rst spring concert on campus: Students placed black cloth around the eyes of white statues in Sanders Theater and around the campus. On the night of the performance, black students stood at the door of Sanders Theater and would not allow any white person to enter (Walters, 20072008, 9). This active refusal to permit entrance of white students to that rst performance is something I have heard alumni mention regularly. Notably, Ken Reeves, a sturdy, well-spoken, brown-skinned man who must be in his sixties, and was a founding member of Kuumba, commented on the changing racial composition of the group in a speech he gave at one of the rst spring rehearsals late last January. Reeves, the former mayor of Cambridge and the rst openly gay black man to be a U.S. mayor, ensures that Kuumbabes understand the tradition they are a part of. He describes how, in the aftermath of the student protests, the black population on campus went from very few . . . including some African princes, to in excess of one hundred. Thus, Kuumba started during an exciting and turbulent time for black students in terms of developing community among one another. When we started, Reeves says, we were all black, overtly stressing the word black. But he concludes by noting that the group now includes Asian and Caucasian members, and speaking to all he says, You have joined here a family that will be with you for always. Clearly, the move to admit nonblack members did not happen overnight or without some considerationKuumba is just too thoughtful and intentional for that. Yet neither Sheldon nor many of the twenty student members I interviewed could (or would?) comment on the historic decision to open up membership when I asked. One alumnus I spoke with offered his perspective on the reluctance of others to speak on the issue. He said, as hes been told, there was a discussion of the implications of having white members, but less of a formal decision. Instead, this alumnus describes a tense scene where a number of black members just got up and left the group never to return. After that, things were more or less left to just continue on as they had been, with black and nonblack members alike in the group. Another possibility for why so few current members spoke of the decision to permit nonblack members might be related to Sheldons priority of making Kuumba a space concerned with the needs of black students. While he is quick to say that everyone is welcome, he is equally quick to note that he coaches the Kuumba board to actively recruit black members, which is some-

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thing he says nonblack members have to be okay with. He explains that this is hard, cause it makes you feel like, well, are you saying that [nonblack members] are less important? Hey, in some ways, yes. And can you be okay with that? Sheldon laments that in our society we cant more readily and directly discuss such diversity-related issues: This idea that . . . its wrong to talk about these things that may be exclusive . . . I think thats a shame. However, while Sheldon is clear that there is presently no issue with nonblack people joining Kuumba, he does remain focused on working with more black students. My issue is that there arent enough black people, which is a different thing, he says. Perhaps his shift away from the issue of nonblacks joining the group to a focus on the groups mission speaks back in part to the critique of some black Harvard undergraduates that Kuumba is somehow not black enough because it has a sizable portion of nonblacks. Focusing on black membershipas opposed to rehashing the decision to include nonblack membersmay also help ensure that the group does not shortchange its mission of meeting the needs of black members in an attempt to make white and other nonblack members feel comfortable. Both Sheldon and the student members I interviewed consistently offer stories of warning about the two or three other dance and theater groups that started as either a spinoff of Kuumba or with a similar mission of focusing on black arts but that are no longer considered black organizations because the needs and interests of nonblack members became predominant. Sheldon is committed to not letting such a thing happen to Kuumba on his watch, stating, We dont let [the acceptance of nonblack members] undermine the reality of who we are. He also remembers a recent performance that was problack where, if I was a white person in that audience, I might just be really uncomfortable. Id be really scared. The performance in question included a reinterpretation through song, poetry, and acting of Strange Fruit, the poem that recounts the horrors of lynching written by Jewish New York City schoolteacher Abel Meeropol and made famous by Billie Holiday.6 Sheldon also remembers a concert in which
there wasnt a single reading that could have been done by a white person. And it was just militant . . . the whole time, I was just like, I wonder how the white people are feeling, you know? And I know that some people in the audience may be uncomfortable, and thats okay, because that is a portion of our history, of what were celebrating, what were talking about.

Perhaps without knowing it, or at least without stating it, Sheldon situates himself within a debate that challenges the increasingly prevalent discourse which argues that we live in a postracial society where differences no longer matter. The melting pot, which largely means whatever cultural identity you have gets melted away . . . Its hard to maintain difference. We all kind of start to become the same. He claries, The discourse of acceptance has

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been unfortunately conated with this idea that were all the same, which is just clearly a lie. Rather, he believes that this generation of college-age young people are living in a state akin to historical amnesia, where there is a lack of understanding that you have the opportunities you do . . . particularly, again, as black people in this country, at this university . . . because other people sacriced, period. This loss of understanding of the importance of those who came before is something Sheldon strives to teach explicitly and implicitly through example at Kuumba. Thus, Sheldon does not hesitate to have difcult conversations about race with the choir, saying that we are living in the age of PC, which stands for Punk Conversations, where people are less likely to say what needs to be said. He recalls one rehearsal where he took up the otherwise unspoken rule that a white person cant be president of Kuumba. He addressed the group by saying that this unspoken rule exists, so lets speak it. A white person cant be president of Kuumba. Lets talk about why. At the end of the conversation, he remembers seeing this one girl who was just crying. He wanted to reach out to her to engage the conversation further but sensed that she wasnt feeling that we could talk at the moment. Sheldon realizes that these conversations can be painful but maintains that they are necessary, There are things that just need to be said and realized, and you are welcome [to participate in Kuumba]. But know that you are being welcomed into a black organization and what that means . . . We can all struggle together. Sheldon notes that the nonblack people who should be here in Kuumba are precisely those who have struggled and have concerns that their presence in this organization that they love may . . . have negative effects on it, and therefore, because they love the institution, that maybe they should leave. Picking up on the recent trend of elite educational institutions promoting themselves as diverse, Sheldon says, We very quickly became Harvards poster child for diversity, and, indeed, photos of the choir have been placed on many brochures and iers and even distributed in a clip sent out by the admissions ofce to prospective students. In many respects, Sheldon notes, the university is more interested in the black aspect; it is as if this historically white institution relies on the black and brown faces of Kuumba to show how minorities can thrive and demonstrate excellence on campus. Imitating those who might use Kuumba to peddle Harvards diversity, Sheldon marvels, Just look at all this color we got! Also key to Kuumbas institutional prominence are the groups many supporters who provide opportunities for the choir to gain exposure. Consequently, Kuumba is often asked to be the only student group to perform at some university events, such as the annual celebration for employees who have twenty-ve years of service at Harvard. Furthermore, Kuumba has had the honor of singing for the inauguration of President Drew Faust, a dinner honoring a Nobel laureate, the opening of a Red Sox game, and Nelson Mandelas historic visit to Harvard to receive his honorary degree.
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While Sheldon wants to be clear that Kuumba is an organization dedicated to celebrating black spirituality and creativity, he concedes that whether the group is called the oldest black student organization or the largest multicultural organization is, in the end, a matter of semantics. Though thinking of the group as either a black organization or a multicultural organization might color peoples perceptions of what the organization is about, Sheldon believes that once someone hears Kuumba sing, these conceptions and words are no longer important. Once someone hears the group perform, he says, the words arent really the important part of what theyre thinking about us.

Bridge: Greater Than One Person


In 1998, at around the age of twenty-two, Sheldon became the third director in the history of the Harvard Kuumba Singers. He was studying for his masters degree at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and was just one year out of college when Mr. Winfrey informed him that he would be retiring and wanted Sheldon to assume the role of director. Recalling the situation, Sheldon still seems somewhat incredulous. He was the only candidate called in for an interview, and he was offered the job on the spot, which, again, is crazy, because Harvard doesnt do things that way. Apparently Mr. Winfrey would endorse only one candidate. According to Sheldon, Mr. Winfrey informed the hiring committee, Ill save you time and money. Theres only one candidate that Im going to endorse. And, I feel very condent in the organization in this mans hands. Sheldon calls Mr. Winfreys unyielding condence in his ability to lead the Kuumba Singers embarrassing, which he says with the utmost humility and respect for the organization that Mr. Winfrey and those who came before him built and that he loves so dearly. Sheldon never once considered turning down the position, but he did feel a little bit like a fraud in the role. Having only limited and informal music training growing up singing in his church choir and playing the saxophone in high school, he was terried, because still, my sight reading sucks. I dont play the piano. I dont have any type of music degree. And Im hired by Harvard to teach. I just felt completely out of my depth. To this day, Sheldon feels conspicuous about his lack of formal music training as the director of Kuumba as well as a high school music teacher and choir director. But what he lacks in formal training he makes up for with his ne-tuned gift of hearing. I could hear some things that other people may not be able to hear, or more easily, and thus convey the ideas to someone else. He jokingly says he has big ears but quickly adds, with a smile, not Will Smithlike. As director, he faced other challenges as well. Because he had only just recently graduated from Harvard College, Sheldon went from singing with the choir to directing those same peers. Though the group is community centered and often described as a family by members and alums, this family, like many others, was not without drama. Sheldon heard rumors of someone on
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the board of the choir telling others that he would quit if Sheldon became director, actions that Sheldon calls a love-hate thing in which the person professed to demonstrate his love for Kuumba by spewing hateful comments about Sheldons promotion to director. Where some might have found defeat in weakness, Sheldon found strength, ultimately coming to see his inability to play the piano, for example, as a blessing in disguise. Rather than focusing on playing the piano for rehearsals, as he notes many choir directors are apt to do, he focuses on listening to the choir and ensuring that the group learns the music without hiding or covering [it] up behind instrumental accompaniment during rehearsals. Sheldon also recognizes that under his direction the choir has continued to grow musically. He doesnt always feel comfortable saying this, for fear of not conveying the great sense of humility and [honor] with which he approaches the role, for there remains a small part in the back of my mind [that] is always terried that Ill mess it up. But then he grins, giving nod to those who came before him and those who are yet to come, Thats always quickly ameliorated by the idea [that] its just like you really arent that important. Youre not so talented that you could mess up something thats been there for forty years. Its bigger than you.

Verse III: Its about the Music, Its about the Family
In the valley. In the valley. Out of the valley. Out of the valley. Amen, amen, amen. Each of the amens is drawn out soulfully, and the richness of the choir members comingled voices lls the cavernous space that is the SOCH Penthouse. The choir erupts into cheers and whistles. They have just nished a moving run-through of John P. Kees Lily in the Valley. Sheldon smiles and in a comical way says, Okay, not bad. Some Kuumbabes laugh; they know it was good, even if Sheldon wont concede the point this early in the school year; there is still much work to be done, and he doesnt want the group to peak too early on a song before its time to perform for an audience. In speaking with Daphne Han, a Chinese American freshman member last year, it was clear to me that Sheldon isnt fooling anyone. Theres a lot of Sheldon telling us that were good without telling us that were good. As in like, You guys are, you sound really good. Oh wait, no, I mean like, you sounded not bad. That kind of thing. But this approach of nding new ways to continually push the choir has not failed before. So tonight Sheldon nds technical xes to offer: All youre saying is Amen. Stop looking at the lyrics. Then in a nerdy voice he imitates a choir member who wont stop looking at the music: I want to get the lyrics right! The choir laughs again. If you ask some Kuumbabes, like Bryanna Norman, a black junior from the South, Kuumba is not about the music. People will tell you that. Its about the community. Indeed, many will boast that they are a no audition choir,

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unlike most of the other groups on campus; this means that everyone and anyone is welcome. However, others, like senior Leela Johnson, a black student of African and Caribbean decent, will tell you that there is something special about the music itself and the high-quality performances. To Sheldon, its about both. In fact, balancing the two is always foremost in his mind. He is proud that Kuumbas music is taken seriously around the university. However, he notes that a balance with the social aspects of the group is just as important and something he has struggled with a lot. If forced to make a choice, though, the most important part is the community, and if that means we sacrice some musical excellence for that, then Im okay with that. One of the strategies Sheldon uses to combine lessons on musicality and community is humorof a sort that strikes me to be a distinctly black form of humor that is something of a mix between Showtime at the Apollo and playing the dozens.7 Last fall, when students were starting to skip rehearsals to study for midterms, Sheldon gave a cautionary lesson on the importance of coming to rehearsals couched in his unique blend of humor. He talked about a choir member who could be seen in the video from the fortieth anniversary concert the previous spring who was moving in the wrong direction during Donald Lawrences Stranger and said, Dont be that one. The choir cracked up. He called out Grace Carter, a black senior from Long Island, insinuating it was her. Smiling and laughing, she retorted, I wasnt even on stage [during that song]! During another rehearsal, when the group was practicing an arrangement of Amazing Grace that Sheldon put together for the choir, the basses and tenors were singing a repeating line of Doo, doo. Sheldon interrupted, And thats exactly what you sound like. Only some got the joke and laughed. Sheldon went on, Thatll hit some of you later. He had them start over. And at yet another rehearsal, to model the kind of subtle intensity a particular song needed, Sheldon demonstrated how it needs to be intense, but that doesnt mean AAHHH! Without missing a beat, he started whispering something intensely and then broke into a hushed I can see it in your eyes from the Lionel Richie song Hello. The choir laughed on cue. When I ask Sheldon about his use of humor during rehearsals, he says that sometimes the choir has to work hard to nail a song and that it can be boring. They have to want to do that. And . . . in order to want to do that, they have to love where they are. Sheldon also wants the choir to see that even though he is the director, they can approach him, and he hopes that by showing his sense of humor, they will feel safer in being able to do so. Understanding that he cant extend rehearsals anymore, because Kuumba already takes as much time as, if not more than, an additional course for students, Sheldon has devised innovative ways to invest the choir in the community and, in turn, in its musicality. In one moving instance last year, during the praise and prayer circle that marks the end of each rehearsal, Sheldon mod-

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eled his own commitment and vulnerability to the group by sharing the story of a student at the high school where he teaches being killed in a drunk driving accident. In introducing the concept of the praise and prayer circle, Sheldon explains that it is part of the black spiritual tradition, though it may also be part of other spiritual traditions. He then goes on to say how important it is for the group to be able to share moments of both praise and struggle, saying that in the black community, the church wasnt just the spiritual center, it was also the community center and the political center. I get the sense that he is hoping some of the choir members will begin to see Kuumba in this way if they havent already. It isnt just a musical group, but it is also a community, and it isnt just a community, but also a group united in music.

Coda: We Can Be United and Not Uniform, We Can Become One in the Music
It is our nal interview and Sheldon and I are alone in the Kuumba ofce sitting on mismatched cushioned desk chairs. Over these past few weeks, I have been thinking a lot about how listening to Kuumba reminds me of my experiences as a musician in my teens. When I was in middle and high school, I played the double bass. And when I played well, I remember feeling that I had become one with the instrumentthe bow on the strings as an extension of my hand, the sound from the belly of the bass allowing me to express myself beyond words. Listeningif a word that is commonly used to connote such a passive act in our society could conjure the right imageto Kuumba gives me much the same feelinglike a communion. I am swept along by the resonance of voices united in song, voices reverberating and connecting singers and listeners alike, becoming one in the music and history. I understand that this is what Kuumba is about for Sheldon, tootranscendence and connection. Now at this nal interview, I have wheeled my chair adjacent to Sheldons, which sits in front of the computer that he has open to his e-mail. I look around the room and see the history of the organization captured visually through written words, images, and artifacts ranging from concert posters for bygone years, including a benet for Hurricane Katrina, to African fabrics draped over boxes concealing documents and choir paraphernalia. Photos line the walls, and in one black-and-white shot I see two young women I recognize from the past couple of years in Kuumbaone African American and one Asian Americanlaughing together in their black choir robes. My eyes are also drawn to a poster behind Sheldons white Mac. Black, red, blue, and green lettering reads, Board 11-12 and is covered with words I can imagine the Kuumba board brainstorming together: Proactive. Sankofa.8 Family. Fierce. I fumble with how to ask Sheldon a question that has been on my mind for quite some time about the function of the music, which Sheldon describes as

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Leaving the Space Better Than You Found It Through Song


sherry l. deckman

being alive for Kuumba. I begin, I dont really know how to ask [this question] because I dont have the words . . . But its something about the music and what it means . . . what can be achieved through the music that cant be achieved other ways? Sheldon laughs gently and knowingly, Everything. He leans back in his chair, looking up at the ceiling and then directly at me. Its a community experience. We sing at funerals. We sing at weddings. All right, we sing at feasts and festivals . . . Its not this consumed thing . . . Music is one of the most powerful things that makes us feel connected. He adds that this experience is shared by the choir and the audience, Theres spirit to the music. And that makes [choir members] feel connected even to their audience. That makes their audience feel connected to them, or even breaks down that line between performer and audience altogether. These kinds of connections are crucial in a time and society that, as Sheldon describes, makes it very easy to forget, to live as if, in everyones eyes, youre equal, to live as if nobody needs your help to get where you are. This lingering thought lls the space between us as we wrap up our conversation. I pack up my things and walk out into the crisp fall night. Outside, in the Quad, the emptiness of the SOCH looms. The seeming desolation of the building which houses Kuumbas rehearsal space is exacerbated by the contrast of the brightly lit, people-less rst oor, fully on view through oor-to-ceiling windows, against the blue-black night sky. In an hour, the void will be lled by the chatter of Kuumbabes coming home to rehearsal. As I walk back toward the main part of campus, I am nally beginning to understand what it means to leave a space better than you found it through song.

Notes
1. I use Sheldons real name. All student names are pseudonyms. 2. Kuumbabes is how members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College endearingly refer to themselves. I use the real name of the organization with permission. 3. Though many members and Sheldon chafe at this characterization of the group as multicultural, holding that they are a black student organization, many also describe with pride the multiracial composition of the choir. 4. For the history of and current information on the Fisk Jubilee Singers of Fisk University, see http://www.skjubileesingers.org/. 5. The SOCH has undergone minimal renovations in the years since I conducted this research in the hopes of making it a hub of student life. Nonetheless, students complain that it is too far away from the main part of campus to serve this function. 6. For additional history of Strange Fruit, see http://www.wsws.org/articles/2002/ feb2002/frut-f08.shtml. 7. The dozens is a form of playful ritual insult common within the African American community. For a fuller discussion, see, for example, Paris (2009). 8. See http://ctl.du.edu/spirituals/Literature/sankofa.cfm. Sankofa is often associated with the African proverb that translates to It is not wrong to go back for that which you have forgotten.

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References
Johnson, J. W. (1900). Lift Every Voice and Sing. Lyrics retrieved from http://www.grace andjamesweldonjohnson.org/lift-every-voice/ Paris, D. (2009). Theyre in my culture, they speak the same way: African American language in multiethnic high schools. Harvard Educational Review, 79(3), 428447. Walters, H. E. (20072008). Kuumba: The early years. Retrieved from http://www.kuumba singers.org/earlyyears.php

Many thanks to the Kuumba Singers and Sheldon K. X. Reid for the gifts of their time and song. I have learned much from them. Thanks also to Sheeba Jacob, Chantal Francois, Shari Dickstein Staub, Anita Wadhwa, Nicole Simon, Jay Huguley, and HER editors Adrienne Keene and Ana Nieto for their discerning feedback on drafts of this work. Finally, I extend my gratitude to Professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot and the students in the fall 2011 portraiture workshop, especially Janine de Novais, for helping me to see and hear this story in ways I hadnt imagined.

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