Despite the Series of Unfortunate Events, the Black History Month event was, in fact, excellent (except for the actual panel).
The planners are sort of new at organizing and coordinating these things, this being only the second or third year that they have made Black History Month any sort of event at the college. That means that they still haven’t learned to anticipate certain problems nor see beyond their own campus to the college’s other two campuses (that’s a whole ‘nother big issue with many of the faculty and students). In this case, the planners had several modest ideas, all of which could have easily fit into the space of an hour. In fact, two of any of the ideas would have fit into the space of the hour; but that wasn’t quite how the creation of this event played out.
They started with the idea of a “Kick-Off Event,” hoping to have a keynote speaker. That was at the first meeting. At the second meeting, they hadn’t found a speaker, but they decided to have a panel or round-table to discuss the need for Black History Month. Someone thought that a “musical selection” would be nice, too.
We may have been speaking in different languages, because I thought “musical selection” meant a nice little jazz combo playing as people drifted into the room before the panel began, and then again at the end. Turns out that they meant someone actually singing a song on the stage.
And damn could she sing! She was a soloist at one of the Baptist Churches, with a rich, powerful alto that overwhelmed the microphone although she held it below her waist. She asked that everyone sing along, and people got up and started singing and dancing. Atheist that I am, I was feeling the spirit! I wanted to go to church just to see this again.
Since the planners had invited the singer for the “musical selection,” they decided that one selection was not enough. Two would be better. The first song was what she called the “Negro National Anthem,” “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Now, I’m familiar with many of these songs from the Civil Rights era, but to be honest, I haven’t actually heard many of them performed nor heard them all the way through. The first time that I heard “We Shall Overcome” all the way through was at an NAACP awards dinner in Nebraska. Everyone joined hands and sang and swayed. I felt the song become bigger than itself.
I had also had never heard “Eyes on the Prize” all the way through until I was at a tiny folk music concert held in someone’s living room in Connecticut. This delicate, elvin, little white guy performed it without any musical accompaniment but his partner’s clogs tapping on the wood floor. The song, I thought, would split him open.
Back here in the auditorium, the singer began “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” I had only heard that line, so the whole thing was quite surprising, somewhere between an anthem and a march, depending on how fast you play it. She started with a marching tempo, then switched to an anthem for the last two verses. The people around me were bobbing along with the rhythm, and I almost wanted to start marching right there in place.
Later, she sang “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Freedom.” She told us that the song, which I had never heard before, was actually an old spiritual that had originally been called “Woke Up This Morning with My Mind on Jesus.” As she started to sing, however, I realized that is wasn’t a spiritual, but a work song. The verses repeat, with a steady rhythm and no development or resolution of a theme in the music. The lyrics also repeat, including a line of call-and-response, with only slight changes of a single sentence or word between each verse. So, the song can go on and on and on, setting the pace of the work for as long as you take rowing a hoe, rowing a boat, knitting a sock, or whatever it is that you might be doing.
Now that I’m writing this, I wonder if some of that structure has carried through into hip-hop, since many rap songs seem not to go anywhere in terms of theme development and resolution, but they have a driving beat and the space for endless improvisation. I’ll have to go see the speaker on that subject later in the month to ask.**
The “musical selections” were great. The panel idea was great. So, the opening event would have a discussion of Black History Month, and then the singer.
Except one of the planners received a call from a Quite Famous Black History foundation in the area. The foundation wanted to present the college president with an achievement award. Everyone agreed that the opening event was the perfect time for this, and debated as to whether the president (who could fit it into his schedule) should make “remarks” or give a “keynote address.” That actually can be a tricky area, because sometimes people agree to make “remarks” and keep on remarking for the better part of an hour. The president, however, is a busy man (and, like many people in this area, probably had weekend plans out of town). He agreed to remarks, and did keep his remarks to the suitable remark length.
Now, the opening event consisted of the presentation of the award, the remarks, two musical selections, and the panel. I should have foreseen that this would take more than an hour, but until I arrived at the panel, I was still under the impression that “musical selection” meant “jazz ensemble to set the mood.”
Then came the keynote speaker. What with the award, remarks, music, and panel, I had assumed that they had abandoned that idea because no one had mentioned it in the slew of e-mails that they sent on the subject of Black History Month nor at any of the meetings. When I received the flier for the event at the beginning of this week, however, they had added a keynote speaker. “Impressive,” I thought, “but will this all be over in time to allow me to get back here for my students?” I had already set up the appointment with the students, one of whom altered his work schedule for this meeting.
The speaker was fabulous. I hoped that he would talk about his research on black men in the prison systems, but he instead spoke on Black History Month and why black history had become important to him. He called his talk, “The Attempted Mis-education of [his name].” He then told stories about growing up in the Baton Rouge public schools and struggling to learn more about black history in the face of a school system that wanted to ignore the subject beyond saying that the slaves were happy and that the masters were kind, and wouldn’t let him touch a research paper topic on cointelpro. “I had a teacher,” he said, “who shook my hand at graduation and said, ‘you really have the potential to be something if you could just get rid of your anger.’”
Isn’t that always the case? People forget that anger can be righteous and tell you to dispense with your righteous anger, not focus it toward justice. To refer back to Frederick Douglass, that was what attracted me to his Narrative many many years ago. His righteous anger channeled into the writing. I imagine that he was fierce to watch in action, much like Martin Luther King. Focused righteous anger is awesome and terrifying and absolutely necessary for change.*
This speaker’s talk took me back to my own mis-education. While the speaker said that the schools had attempted to mis-educate him, he had the intellect and the influence of both of his politically active parents to help him fight against that mis-education. I, however, was in fact mis-educated. Part of the point of my life is to re-educated myself. I’ll brush up what I said in my two minutes of fame that I could get in edgewise on the panel and post it another time…I have more bitching to work through here.
Now, the original idea had grown to include a keynote speaker, an award, remarks, two musical selections, and the panel. This was truly an Event, and up until the panel, everyone began on time and ended on time. Even the panelists did the same – which may be a first in the history of academic panels!
But the panel idea fell apart because moderator really wanted to dominate the discussion, and wasn’t particularly astute to any of the other panelists beyond the one sitting to his immediate left. She herself wasn’t particularly aware that other people were even on the panel, much less might be signaling that they had something of their own to say. Between the two of them, the other three of us couldn’t get recognized unless we flat out interrupted, which would be rude (and which also lead to the ethical dilemma of "does one rude deed deserve another?").
Meanwhile, the audience rapidly eroded and those who remained only waited to be called on to use the opportunity to advertise their own agenda. That, or they were afraid to leave because the professor who had required them to attend was sitting two rows behind them. The other person on the panel who had to leave, after having told the moderator ahead of time that she had an appointment at 2:30 with the provost (the moderator replied, “oh, we should be done long before then”), tried to get the moderator’s attention. I was doing the same next to her.
The moderator was too busy explaining what a shame it was that no one had signed up for his African history class and that the students just don’t want to learn history and that the African students were particularly bad in this respect (the other chatty panelists, herself a Nigerian, called some well-deserved bullshit on that, but then they got into a debate, and so on and so on ).*** So he wasn’t paying attention to us.
I’ve met this other panelist, the one who had the appointment with the provost, before. She doesn’t suffer fools for long. She finally just stood up to leave. I followed. That signaled that the festivities had ended, and the rest of the panel stood. The two or three students remaining in the audience dashed from the auditorium. The moderator kept talking.
Here’s my frustration with the whole thing. First of all, I probably would rave much more about the event had I not had another appointment somewhere else, and especially had I not crashed my car because I was in a hurry to get to that somewhere else. The event, with the exception of the crappy moderation of the roundtable, was quite excellent. The music was wonderful and the speaker inspiring. The college president’s presence gave an air of importance. The panel, despite the crappy moderation and agendas competing for center stage, was ultimately interesting (and could have been more interesting had most of the audience not left). All in all, the organizers did a great job.
Except for the timing.
They all had brought a series of moderately sized events to the planning table, but as they gradually consolidated these small events, the overall event grew much larger than they were willing to admit. Since everyone was proud of their small event, no one even considered relinquishing their place on the program and rescheduling as a small event on another day. They also didn’t think of re-conceptualizing the event as an afternoon or weekend mini-conference, which would have allowed them to include or develop more of the fabulous ideas that they had tossed around during the planning. This meant that they ended up with larger event than originally planned, which then meant that this larger event naturally ran way over a schedule set for a much smaller event.
So, I take all of these lessons to heart. I must be much more aggressive and active next year. I felt that I mostly reacted to these events, with expensive consequences. I should pay closer attention, and when my gut says, “this shit is going to last much longer than the hour they say,” my mouth should follow suit. I should take the lead in organizing events at my own campus for next year. Watching this happen at their campus this year has taught me how to go about doing these things, how to gather people together and what contingencies should be taken into consideration. They were clearly winging it, so why shouldn’t I? Organizing on my own campus means that I will not have to rely upon their activities and merely represent our campus at the events. Finally, as the other history professor at my college pointed out: if you want to have and keep butts in the seats, you have to offer food, even if it’s just pizza and (in his terminology) “soda.”****
As I said, I’m in the Pollyanna Zone. So “I’m glad.”
* With all of its flaws, I really cringe when people dismiss hip-hop and especially rap as a musical form; I found myself in a discussion on rock and popular music once, and I was the only defender of punk and rap. Hell, I was the only one who had any real familiarity with either form, and I don't listen to much of either outside of the Clash and Missy Elliot.
**On a totally irrelevant, but related side note, I have a tattoo on my ankle that is supposed to be the Babylonian goddess of “righteous anger and compassion.” I’m not even sure if there was a Babylonian goddess of righteous anger and compassion, but I like the idea and made it my own. A student once saw the tattoo and asked what it meant. When I told her, she asked, “Why would you want a tattoo of a goddess of bitterness?” Her friend gave her a little shove, “girl! How do you get ‘bitterness’ out of ‘righteous anger and compassion’?” I think the first girl’s reaction was quite in keeping with many people’s response to any suggestion of anger.
***I've actually noticed a hostility between Africans, African-Americans, and African-Carribeans. The pannelists each assumed that because these students all have black skin and ancestors from Africa, that they should all be Pan-Africanists. While there is merit to this argument, at this panel, the hand-wringers seemed to be missing the fact that all three groups have other identities, such as nationality and religion and immigration status and class and even simply personal experience, that limit a complete Pan-African identification with one another. That problem should be addressed in order to form any sort of alliance between the groups. Not that anyone could get a word in edgewise to point this out.
****Nope, I had not eaten lunch because of the tight squeeze between the end of my class and the start of this event. There were no refreshments at the event. There wasn’t even water for the panelists or speakers. My low blood sugar absolutely played into subsequent Unfortunate Events and my reaction.