Black Music History

More Than Just a February Lesson

By NAfME Member Ashley Cuthbertson

This article first appeared on A. Cuthbertson Consulting’s blog where you can listen to this blog post.

For many music educators around the U.S., February is a time to pull out lessons on Black musicians and composers, jazz & blues, spirituals, and hip hop. And while I love all of those things, today I want to challenge you to challenge your own notions about what you teach in February and beyond.

2022 ANHE jazz ensemble rehearsal

Photo: Lisa Helfert

Black Music Is American Music

When Carter G. Woodson first initiated the celebration of “Negro History Week” on February 7th, 1926, he aimed to reform the pre-existing celebrations in Black communities of two great Americans (Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, both of whom have birthdays in February), into the study of a great race.

While commonly studied composers and musicians in the music room would lead one to think otherwise, we must remember that Black Music Is American Music. Studying composers like Beethoven or Mozart, or even the Classical music genre is a study of European music. Uniquely American styles of music all have their beginnings in the Black community: spirituals, blues, jazz, hip hop, R & B, pop, country, the list goes on.

I often come across music teachers looking for ways to celebrate Black History Month during February, and while I am glad that they are including study of Black musicians and genres in their music classrooms, it disappoints me to know that in a lot of those classrooms, this is the only time when this is happening.

When we only teach about Black musicians and genres during the month of February, we are whitewashing the history of American music itself. Only singing spirituals during February or only presenting a jazz unit in February is effectively othering Black music in a country where Black music is the root of our musical history.

2022 ANHE concert band rehearsal

Photo: Lisa Helfert

But let me be clear: Absolutely teach Black music during February! Do that blues lesson, introduce a hip hop artist, learn to scat sing!

And, if February is the only time that Black music is happening in your music classroom, you have some critical self-reflecting to do.

Centering Black Music

Black History Month is an opportunity for us as music educators to center Black musicians, genres, and music in our classrooms to help our students learn more about the contributions of Black folks not just in music, but in the history (and present) of our country. And, as I said before, it’s problematic if February is the only time that this is happening in your classroom. So, what does one mean by centering Black music?

Taking an honest look at the repertoire, composers, artists, and other musical content you present to your students will reveal your values and what you find to be important. Who and what you are choosing to center, or focus on, shapes your students’ understanding of who/what matters and who/what does not. Our own biases and frames of reference shape what we choose and find worthy. This is why it’s important that educators engage in critical self-reflection to identify our frames of reference and how they show up in how we engage with the world as well as how and what we teach. We can only disrupt our own biases when we understand what they are in the first place.

When presenting Black music and musicians, it’s important that we do the real work of learning histories, people, events, and nuance. To simply teach a lesson about the blues, for example, without including proper context is also a form of whitewashing. I encourage you to move beyond just singing and listening, to additionally engaging your students in discussions around the history, people, and events as well. This is what I mean when I say “using music as a vehicle to learn about self, others, and the world.” To teach the music in its proper context means that teachers have to take the time to educate themselves when necessary, as well as checking their own biases to ensure that what you are presenting is accurate and presents the whole truth.

Commit to Action

Here are some things you can do all year round to center Black music in your classroom:

  1. Educate yourself on the history of American music.
  2. Pick one genre of music (ex. Blues, jazz, soul, hip hop, etc) to really dig into and learn about. Share what you learn with your students and ask them what they know.
  3. Look to culture bearers. This is important; seek out authentic recordings and musicians to learn from.
  4. Commit to intentionally programming Black music throughout the year.

Remember small shifts: culturally responsive teaching is a not a strategy, it’s not a one and done, it’s not a checklist, it’s a mindset change. Pick one thing to shift and do, then go from there.

2022 ANHE Mixed Choir rehearsal

Photo: Lisa Helfert

Centering Marginalized Voices: An Important Part of
a Culturally Responsive Music Classroom

Culturally responsive music educators know that disrupting the status quo to provide a more accurate history of the world helps to better equip our students with the truth and empathy we need to make this world a better, more equitable place for all of us.

“In our music rooms, by disrupting the inaccurate narratives about Black music and instead placing Black music, American music, in the center we change those inaccurate stories.”

When we center marginalized voices in our society and bring them to the forefront, we disrupt inaccurate narratives. In our music rooms, by disrupting the inaccurate narratives about Black music and instead placing Black music, American music, in the center we change those inaccurate stories.

How are you centering Black music?

I would love to know how you’re centering Black music in your classroom! Comment below [in the original blog] or share on social media and tag me: I’m @ACuthbertson10 on Twitter and Instagram, and @ACuthbertsonConsulting on Facebook.

Also, let me know what you think of this post! If you haven’t already, be sure to sign up for my weekly email newsletter where I’ll be sending these blog posts each week, as well as other music ed resources and tips.

About the author: 

Ashley CuthbertsonAshley Cuthbertson, M.Ed., NBCT (she/her) is the Founder & Principal Consultant of A. Cuthbertson Consulting, LLC, an educational consulting firm that partners with schools, school districts, and organizations to help music educators build and maintain high quality music programs that attract, engage, and retain music students by centering equitable and culturally responsive pedagogical practices in their music curriculum & instruction.

A Nationally Board Certified Teacher, Ashley holds a Master’s in Education, as well as certifications in the Kodály approach and Arts integration. Ashley has over twelve years of experience in education as a general music & choral educator, a band educator, a K-12 musicianship instructor, a private lessons instructor, lead teacher, new teacher coach, adjunct professor, curriculum writer, and consultant.

A passionate advocate for music education, Ashley additionally serves the National Association for Music Education as a member of the Repertoire Diversity Task Force and the Virginia Music Educators Association as chair of the DEI Council.

Learn more at www.AshleyCuthbertson.com/about-us.

Did this blog spur new ideas for your music program? Share them on Amplify! Interested in reprinting this article? Please review the reprint guidelines.

The National Association for Music Education (NAfME) provides a number of forums for the sharing of information and opinion, including blogs and postings on our website, articles and columns in our magazines and journals, and postings to our Amplify member portal. Unless specifically noted, the views expressed in these media do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Association, its officers, or its employees.

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Published Date

February 21, 2023

Category

  • Culturally Relevant Teaching
  • Culture
  • Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Access (DEIA)
  • Race
  • Repertoire
  • Representation

Copyright

February 21, 2023. © National Association for Music Education (NAfME.org)

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