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Quit the Race-Baiting, Kuumba

The Academia Nut

By Zachary S. Podolsky

I am Jewish. Suppose I were sitting in the popular Core class Social Analysis 34, “Knowledge of Language,” and the Jewish a cappella group Mizmor Shir gave a performance before class, as singing groups sometimes do. Suppose that, right afterwards, Associate Professor of Linguistics Bert Vaux said that Mizmor Shir’s performance made a nice segue into a discussion of the vocabulary of Yiddish. Would I have any pretext, any justification, any reason, to accost Vaux after class and demand an apology?

Apparently, according to the logic of some members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, including its president, I would.

Last month, Kuumba demanded an apology from Vaux for daring to say that their brief performance at the beginning of “Knowledge of Language” made a good segue into a discussion of Ebonics.

Whether you consider what Vaux did inappropriate depends critically on whether or not you have the slightest idea of what you are talking about. Let me explain.

If you don’t know what you’re talking about, then you might think there is a problem with his saying “Thank you for that, that was very nice. Now, appropriately enough after that, I have [a student] to comment on our Ebonics vocabulary.”

You might say, as Kuumba president Johanna N. Paretzky ’03 was quoted in The Crimson saying, “The segue was very clear, and it caught everyone off guard.” Whatever that means.

And you might continue, as she did, “I don’t know if it was a lighthearted joke and he wanted people to laugh, but we didn’t.”

If, on the other hand, you do know what you’re talking about, then you would realize that there is nothing—nothing—wrong, or even abnormal, about saying that African-American music is a nice segue into a discussion of African-American language. I am completely baffled, to be honest, that anyone could think otherwise. It wasn’t a racist remark, and it wasn’t, for that matter, a light-hearted joke—it was a perfectly appropriate and unremarkable comment.

Perhaps the crowning irony of the whole Vaux affair is that anyone who has taken Social Analysis 34—as I have—knows that Vaux takes great pains to combat the common misconception that Ebonics is some sort of ghetto patois that is “inferior” to English.

Whether the offended members of Kuumba themselves have this misconception about Ebonics—and that is why they were upset by Vaux’s segue—I do not know. What I do know is that this whole unfortunate and unnecessary incident is ignominious to the complainers and their organization, and not to Bert Vaux.

You may, at this point, be thinking: OK, OK—so some Kuumba members had a little gaffe with Bert Vaux—everyone is allowed a mistake every now and then, even if that mistake is reckless, misinformed and potentially damaging to the reputation of an innocent party.

Unfortunately, though, this is not the first time this semester that members of Kuumba have been involved in this brand of behavior.

In a Crimson op-ed published in November, Kuumba member Savannah J. Frierson ’05—who did not respond to repeated attempts for comment—spent 750 words passing off her own paranoid fantasies in the form of ridiculous race baiting imputations about the class of 1957, at whose 45th reunion Kuumba had recently performed.

Just for illustration, let me give my two personal favorites. Frierson quotes one Class of ’57 member as proposing a toast to their grandchildren being “above average as well,” and then muses, “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.” Yes, I mean, how dare they wish their grandchildren well—how racist!

She also has the following very incisive comment about the alums’ conversations with each other: “All around there were people mingling and having a good time, talking about the good ole [sic] days that certainly didn’t include people who looked like we did.” Sure, this sounds very plausible. After all, what else is there to talk about at one’s 45th reunion than how great Harvard was when there were no blacks?

Seriously, though. When I read Frierson’s piece, I found it a bit unsettling that these and other unfounded, gratuitous and divisive accusations were being bandied about without a shred of credible evidence to support them. But I took solace in my assumption that, in spite of her frequent use of “we” rather than “I,” Frierson’s views were not—could not be—representative of the attitudes of other members of her group.

Now, though, I am beginning to wonder. Taken in isolation, Frierson’s op-ed and the Vaux incident are, perhaps, forgettable. Considered in each other’s context, they seem to evince a disturbing pattern of willingness, if not eagerness, to make bogus, race-baiting accusations.

Many of Kuumba’s songs speak of peace, community, and reconciliation. I wholeheartedly support and endorse that message, and I have long held Kuumba in high regard. It is for this reason as much as any that Kuumba members of good will should speak up and distance themselves from the reprehensible actions that have now besmirched their organization’s name not once, but twice this semester—which is two times too many.

Zachary S. Podolsky ’04 is a classics concentrator in Currier House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.

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