On Display With Kuumba

One of the alums of the Class of 1957 asked the Kuumba Singers at a reunion last month, “so did you all fly in from across the country to perform tonight?” I really did have to smother a laugh at that comment. I just smiled and said, “well technically yes, because we go to school here.”

I really wished I had stayed in the room to see the alum’s reaction, but we were leaving then. Nevertheless, that comment was just one of many that made the night uncomfortable. Here we were, a group of majority black students singing for an all-white audience, most of whom were upwards of 60 years old, and we were singing songs from black culture. These were songs about faith through slavery, recognizing beauty in the midst of ugliness and being proud of one’s position in a community. And all some people wanted to know was if we had any Sudanese people in our group. Sudanese? Where did they get that from?

To them, we might as well be from Sudan or another country, because back in their time they could count the number of black students attending Harvard on their hands. We felt like tokens that night, like we were there only to show diversity and prove that Harvard has indeed become a welcoming institution for all kinds of people. But inside that room we felt anything but welcome. From the minute we walked in, the looks we received were ones of confusion; there was a distinct feeling that we did not belong. We did not look like the Class of 1957 and, more importantly, we did not look like the grandkids of the Class of 1957.

Being the only people of color in the building (aside from the people who worked there), we felt conspicuously out of place. But in a sense, we were working there. We were the entertainment. We were ushered into a room upstairs and kept out of sight until they were ready for us. There, we were able to joke about an otherwise tense and uncomfortable situation. When they called us, we lined up and walked out into the hallway, where we proceeded to stand for a good 10 minutes. All around there were people mingling and having a good time, talking about the good ole days that certainly didn’t include people who looked like we did.

We were inside the room where we were going to be performing, and the speaker proposed a toast. Towards the end of it he said something to the effect of “And may our grandchildren be above average as well!” There was laughing and cheering at that comment, but all I could do was look up and shake my head. The statement seemed to endorse the preservation of a power structure that has been in place for centuries, a power structure that does not include people of color. The comment may have been made with the best intentions, but it stung nonetheless.

After that, we were introduced as part of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College. We sang spirituals, gospel and contemporary music. I wonder if the alums felt as uncomfortable hearing what we sang as I was singing it. The discomfort arose from the fact that all of us went in with the expectation that they would not understand what we were singing, that they would not understand the message. It is sad that we went in there that way; what’s even sadder is that the audience lived up to our expectations. I could not even make eye contact with the audience. I felt like I was on display, brought in for color to show that black people do exists on campus now. Sure we sounded good, we sang well, but we were delivering a message. We were sharing black culture with them, and they didn’t understand. But perhaps what really bothered us was the fact that they did not care to understand.

Kuumba is a beautiful organization whose mission is to celebrate black culture and creativity through song to those who otherwise would not be exposed to it. I think that it is fair to say that members of the Class of 1957 are an excellent audience for this goal. There will always be tension when two worlds collide, but it presents a unique opportunity to reconcile both worlds together. The gig provided such an opportunity. But somehow I just don’t think that reconciliation was reached this time.

Savannah J. Frierson ’05 is an English and Afro-American studies concentrator in Eliot House. She is a member of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College.

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