I saw Hidden Figures this past weekend. I waited too long to do so, probably, as I'd been hearing about it for months on end because I am a fan of and follow Janelle Monae closely on social media. I enjoyed it tremendously. The film didn't contain a lot of subtleties, as most of it was straight-forward narrative. But one undercurrent of the film was the idea that the scientists & engineers who also happened to be black women portrayed in the film achieved their goals not because of a segregated society and the challenges they faced as a result, but in spite of it. Oppressed people do not owe thanks to the institutions that oppress them; they achieve in spite of oppression.
The same can be said of a teaching concept born of a conversation I first had four years ago with my students. I had an eighth grade, year-long general music class. In all of my wisdom, both times I've taught general music, I've sought to try new things. They've gone over so-so, mostly because I had not done a lot of the leg work to get a strong curriculum moving. It was hard to engage them academically for a number of reasons. One thing I tried to work into that class was the development of jazz and rock'n'roll in the era of court-enforced segregation.
Obviously, racial segregation in the United States did not begin in 1896, but with Plessy v. Ferguson, there was a Supreme Court precedent to legally enforce "Separate but Equal" facilities. As we all know now, separate did not mean equal, and it meant that people of color were often subject to inferior services, facilities, schools, medical care or had no access to services, facilities, schools, or medical care. Racially-motivated violence was much more prominent during that time in American history, and many people died in particularly gruesome manners as a result.
But we know all of this already. The Plessy decision was overturned by Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, one of the biggest landmark cases in Supreme Court history. Brown brought down a federal mandate, declaring segregation unconstitutional, but it asked that states desegregate "With All Deliberate Speed", causing the process to drag on for many years.
At the same time, at the hands of black musicians in the U.S., jazz and rock'n'roll came into being. Plessy and Brown serve as surprisingly neat bookends to the development of these musical genres, both of which are considered American cultural crown jewels. And both genres came directly from black American culture.
Here's the question: should black Americans who were at the vanguard of jazz and rock'n'roll be grateful that they had so many challenges in their way? Is that struggle what made the music great?
I love jazz and I love rock'n'roll and everything they've influenced. I cannot be grateful enough for these pioneering musicians and all they allowed to come into being. But these genres do not belong to my culture. I can say with confidence, even as a white woman, based on my knowledge and study that no, jazz and rock'n'roll did not happen (or not sound the way they sounded) as a result of segregation and the pain and struggle that ensued. These marvelous artistic feats occurred in spite of pain and in spite of oppression. Scott Joplin, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, W.C. Handy, Duke Ellington, and Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm do not owe a debt of gratitude to the Plessy decision. They changed the world in spite of the Plessy decision, and flying in the face of white supremacy, black musicians laid the groundwork for everything we have to be grateful for as a culture today.
I made a teaching tool - a Prezi, to be exact - that better expresses these ideas and features listening examples from some of these artists. It could be of use in general music, jazz band, or even social studies classes. I hope you find it useful - I'm sure my past-tense students (who are now seniors in high school) might have appreciated it.
"But Emily, Black History Month is over!"
Yes, it is, and trust me, I've been working on this project (which has no real practical use at this time in my classroom, I just wanted to get it done) for a very long time and had hoped I would have completed it by the end of this month. However, kids need context for Black History, not just a month where they talk about it a little bit and then forget about it. Kids cannot possibly have context for something they only hear about once.
Above is a photo preview. Below is the link to the Prezi itself (which is public! You can feel free to use it! Give me credit it you'd like, just don't reproduce it yourself!!).