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Celebrating African American Music Month in the Classroom

By Dr. Rollo Dilworth

Every June since 1979, African American Music Month (known at the time as Black Music Month with the name change occurring in 2009) has been a designated time for all to learn more about the contributions that people of African descent have made to the musical traditions in the United States. Within the month of June, the educator — particularly the music educator — has an opportunity to end the school year helping students to explore the historical, cultural, and social contexts that influenced the development of African American musical styles. African American Music Month is an opportunity for all of us — regardless of background or lived experience — to celebrate and honor the legacies of those who shaped both American music and American culture.

Understanding the History and Impact of African American Music

Although June has been specifically designated as African American Music Month, I believe that African American music should be celebrated throughout the entire year. While there is potential to place special focus to African American music during June (and also in February during Black History Month), it is important that we give value and voice to this music year-round.

A significant amount of the musical styles that helped to create the American musical landscape can be traced back to the rhythms, melodies, harmonies, hums, wails, cries, and shouts that enslaved Africans brought to this country from their homeland and incorporated into a new genre — the spiritual. Composed and transmitted through oral tradition, the spiritual became the work songs, sorrow songs, code songs, ceremonial songs, and worship songs that constituted the core DNA for its offspring — including the blues, jazz, gospel, rhythm and blues, rock and roll, soul, funk, disco, rap, and hip hop. Also, for more than a century, African Americans have made major contributions to the classical and concert music scene. Unfortunately, much of this music has been overlooked and undervalued. It has only been in recent years that the music of classical African American composers such as William Grant Still, Florence Price, Margaret Bonds, George Walker, Undine Smith Moore, Adolphus Hailstork, Ulysses Kay, Hale Smith, and H. Leslie Adams has been recognized and performed by more prominent choruses and orchestras in major concert venues.

Celebrating African American Music in the Classroom

Because African American music plays a vital role in the history of American society, it is important that we teach this music in K-12 settings to children of all backgrounds and lived experiences. When I advocate for the equitable inclusion of African American music in K-12 curricula, I often cite the teaching philosophy of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop, who used the metaphor of “windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors” when making the case for diversity in children’s literature (1). This metaphor outlines the idea that children, through literature, should be able to see themselves reflected as well as the lived experiences of others. Dr. Bishop also believes that literature should allow us the opportunity to “open a sliding glass door” and step into someone else’s world. I believe this metaphor is also appropriate in helping music educators to advocate for including a meaningful amount of African American music in the curriculum.

Practices and Projects for Your Classroom

There exists a rich cultural tapestry of musical styles that have been borne out of the African American experience. Why not consider highlighting a different style or genre each month of the academic year? In this way, African American Music Month can function as a culmination point for all of the music studied over the past nine months. In late May or sometime in June (depending upon your academic calendar) there can be some type of program or presentation. This presentation can be in the form of an end-of-the-year concert or assembly. It may be possible to coincide the presentation with a celebration of Juneteenth.

What are some ideas for creating an informative and exciting celebration of African American Music in the month of June? Consider creating a varied program featuring African American music and musicians. Once the program is complete, work backward in your planning by spreading the content over the entire academic year. The culminating program in June would be a chance to bring together all the historic figures and repertoire. In developing the event, be sure to collaborate with your students (and perhaps even the broader school and neighborhood communities) to ensure that the resulting program is relevant and meaningful for all those involved. When involving community members or organizations, be certain that there are shared outcomes in which everyone benefits.

African American Music Month can be an opportunity for celebrating African American music from the academic year that is closing, or perhaps as a catalyst honoring African American music that is to be featured in the academic year ahead. It is important to remember that this music plays a significant role in American culture and that all people are encouraged to learn about it, embrace it, honor it, and perform it.

Rollo Dilworth is Professor of Choral Music Education and Vice Dean at Temple University’s Center for the Performing and Cinematic Arts in Philadelphia, PA. Over 200 of Dilworth’s choral compositions and arrangements are the catalogs of Hal Leonard Corporation, Santa Barbara Music Publishers and Colla Voce Music. He is also the author of 3 choral pedagogy books entitled Choir Builders, and his research activities focus on African American choral music, social emotional learning, community engagement, and diversity, equity, access and inclusion. He is in frequent demand as a clinician and guest conductor for all-state, honor and festival choirs.

Dr. Dilworth is also a contributor to Voices in Concert.

References

(1) Bishop, R. S. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the. Classroom,6(3).

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