This is a piece of writing that I never shared publicly. Though I wrote it soon after the event, I needed time before sharing it widely. I wanted to be very careful not to center my experience when the attention needed to be on the immediacy of grief for those nearest to the situation. I also want to be mindful of the privacy of my students, so I deliberately omitted or blurred some details in this piece. Soon after writing it, I sent it to colleagues for feedback; one reminded me that I needed to clarify the specifics of the event; my thought at the time was, “Will people ever forget this terrible day?” And yet, for many, it fades into the distance behind what feels like a never-ending litany of mass shootings.
Looking at the writing from a distance, I realized that it sits somewhere between pedagogical writing and memoir. The songs used in the lesson that day--and I've provided links to the lyrics throughout--are still good stepping stones for conversations about race, injustice, protest, and American history. Unfortunately, teachers will continue to need to address mass tragedies even as they teach their course materials, and perhaps this could provide a helpful model. On the personal side, students have shared how this class changed them. And this class changed many things for me; I educated myself and surrounded myself with advocates. As a family, we joined a multiracial church plant that is committed to bridging divides. More recently, I had the opportunity to co-lead a seminar under the leadership of an African-American sister where I was able to use some of what I learned through this and similar teaching experiences to talk to local church communities about structural racism, as well as the power of music to bring us together.
June 24, 2015 (updated for context and clarity)
Even before I found out about the tragic shooting at Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston (6/17/2015), I knew that the class I had on the following afternoon would be challenging. It was the day I was scheduled to teach about Civil Rights and protest songs in my “Bob Dylan and the History of American Popular Music” course to a lively and racially, culturally, and generationally diverse group of students. After reading the news, I spent the morning in sadness and prayer, with a head throbbing from the struggle to find ways to frame the topic in the midst of such a difficult day. The pressure system of the incoming thunderstorm tangibly echoed the weight I felt.
It’s always hard to put words around the sadness, the tragedy of racism in the U.S. as reflected in song, whether discussing the mockery of blackface minstrelsy, or exploring songs protesting racism. To wrap students’ heads around the power of music in a classroom when they come from vastly different backgrounds. All of this was amplified in the immediacy of the event. It’s not the first time. I’ve taught in classrooms where my students looked like Trayvon Martin, wearing hoodies, incidentally or in conscious memorial. Knowing that Michael Brown was headed to a technical college haunted me—he could have been a student in my classroom. And any one of the mid-career black women in my class this summer could have passed away in South Carolina. When I look out, I can’t see these issues in the abstract anymore, I see my students’ faces.
Before my lecture, students gave group presentations. The group presenting on protest songs discussed “Only a Pawn in Their Game” on the death of Medgar Evers. As we watched footage of Dylan singing at the 1963 March on Washington, the students noted that when the crowd heard Medgar Evers’ name, they all stood up and took off their hats “as if it were the national anthem.” We continued talking about “Only a Pawn in Their Game” and the way the song contrasts personal responsibility with systemic injustice. If we keep calling out one person’s name for a racially motivated crime without an awareness of the culture that’s nurtured the response, we haven’t reached the root of the problem.
The presenters discussed what held white people back from being advocates in the 1960s and they dug into difficult questions. Then the two women in the group—one black, one white—told me that the project had encouraged them to talk about the differences between their childhoods. Being the same age, they had completely different experiences—one grew up in the shadows of racism, and one grew up in a family of racists. A gentle man spoke up from the back of the room. He said that he also was raised in a family and culture of racism. But what saved him from falling into that attitude himself were his public-school teachers. His teachers told him a different story than what he heard around him, a story of equality, and their narratives showed him a different way.
Then I asked them all to brainstorm about how music functioned as protest. They created a list that included uniting community, physically coordinating people, expressing emotion, drawing attention to important topics, and expressing spirituality.
After the presentations, we analyzed individual songs. I started with a triad of “No More Auction Block” “We Shall Overcome,” and “Blowin’ in the Wind,” all three based around the same melodic gesture. “No More Auction Block” is a 19th-century spiritual, with visceral lyrics. I think that reading those lyrics brings a fresh power to “We Shall Overcome,” showing the pain and realities behind it, then “Blowin’ in the Wind”—framed as a series of potentially unanswerable questions—challenges us to consider the questions we’ve still left unanswered, whether intentionally or from indifference.
While preparing for the class earlier in the week, I considered doing a song demonstration in class, but in my preparation earlier in the day, I decided not to do it because it was such a hard day. However, at that moment of the classroom, it felt right—my gut or spirit or teacher’s intuition pulled me forward. I’m an expressive teacher, but I’m also a little reserved. But this felt right. I knew we had built up trust from the very first day of class. And I asked them if they would be willing to trust me again, and to participate in an optional activity.
I queried the students on whether they knew how “We Shall Overcome” was traditionally performed, and someone answered, “People held hands.” I had them hold hands across the classroom. I showed them the two ways of holding hands—the ordinary way, or with arms crossed in front. Holding hands across the body is a position of strength, both symbolically and for the purpose of peaceful resistance. The students also responded that it felt like a hug.
Ted Polumbaum Collection/Newseum, 1964
I told them honestly that I had decided not to do this activity because of the sadness of the day but had changed my mind as the class progressed. And with their hands still fastened together, I pulled out the ukulele, and we sang. It was a moment of profound unity. Even if it were only symbolic or momentary, it had weight, and I wasn’t the only one whose voiced cracked while singing. The visual image of the hands linked across the class seared into my memory.
The response of the students varied. One had never heard the song before and felt like there was a chunk of history that he should have known and was never taught, while another said that she had just sung it in their church on the past Sunday.
From there, we moved into a more general discussion of Dylan’s protest songs, from universal protest songs to particularized “topical” songs, as well as the emotional spectrum of these songs ranging from hope to sadness to anger. The universal songs, like “I Shall Be Released” have frequently been revived for later protests, like the Amnesty International concerts protesting Apartheid in South Africa and other injustices in the 1980s.
“Blowin’ in the Wind,” though on the universal side of the spectrum, references Civil Rights concerns, “How many roads must a man walk down before you call him a man?” and “How many years must some people exist before they’re allowed to be free?” “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” acts as memorial and memory in its role as a topical song, but also expresses the general challenges of discrimination, in the culture and in the judicial system. I couldn’t bear to play “Death of Emmett Till,” but we talked about the history behind it.
I postponed the discussion of some of the angry, incisive songs--“Masters of War” and “With God on Our Side” until our next class. Nearly 2.5 hours in, we were all exhausted, though the students continued to bring up their own experiences throughout the class. They also tackled important and difficult issues like what it means to be an advocate, how we address issues of appropriation (especially when artists like Elvis popularize songs of black musicians), and how we understand Dylan in the light of the spectrum between advocacy and appropriation.
We finished up with the universal “When the Ship Comes In.” The song holds out the call to pursue justice even when it’s a long time coming, embodying a joyful anger in overthrowing injustice, and articulates the hope that justice will roll in like the tide.
As an epilogue, I created an open-ended discussion board for students to reflect on whatever issues they wanted to from the classroom. It became a place of more sharing, one student opening up about vulnerable moments from her own past, another expressing longing for global justice, and another pleading for us to keep considering and talking about these issues. They took ownership of the issues and directed the conversation themselves. This class period was one of the most profound moments of teaching in my life, though in the scheme of things, it was simply a moment in time, some students may remember, and some may forget. But after seeing their responses and e-mails, I’m hopeful that my students will draw from moments like this to become advocates into their own communities.
Joanna & Tim
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