As 2020 came to an end, many of us felt hopeful that 2021 would bring much better times for our campus, our state, and our country. I remain hopeful, even though the alarming surge of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in North Carolina continue to temper my positive outlook on our immediate future. But there is no denying that the insurrection that occurred at our nation’s Capital on January 6 more than tempered my hope; that day was one of the darkest days of my lifetime as a citizen of my country. As I celebrate today the swearing in of a new President and Vice President of the United States of America, I know that more than ever challenges lay ahead that include reckoning with the systems of oppression that this department recommitted to doing last summer. The “Do the Work Wednesdays” series is one way in which we reaffirm these commitments to students, faculty, and staff.
Some may ask, what do the events of January 6 have to do with teaching music? My answer would be to read our mission, as I have done again today. Opinions surely differ across the political spectrum on how to explain the insurrection of January 6. As a scholar of music, race, and identity, my understanding of what I saw and heard as I live-streamed reports from Washington, DC on that day resonates with the opinions of historians Rhae Lynn Barnes and Keri Leigh Merritt. Writing for cnn.com, Dr. Barnes and Dr. Merritt challenge us to frame the insurrection at the Capital within what they call the “New Lost Cause.”
With this idea of a “New Lost Cause” in mind, I would like to focus on one of our mission’s statements: “We engage with all students, colleagues, patrons, and musical repertories with respect and humility, and with an awareness of the privilege and power that comes with being associated with a university, particularly a historically and predominantly white institution.” I take UNC’s Board of Trustee’s Policy for the Consideration of the Removal of Names on University Buildings and Public Spaces as recognition of the most pernicious legacies of the history of UNC as a predominately white institution, that is, its legacy of the enslavement and segregation of Black people that still haunts our campus in some of its buildings and monuments named after enslavers and white supremacists. The Department of Music’s Person Hall, for example, is named after General Thomas Person, a Brigadier General during the Revolutionary War and an enslaver of Black people. Throughout most of my years as a faculty member I have taken for granted Person Hall’s role in this history even though the building sits practically in the shadows of where Silent Sam stood.
I began to engage with this history in my teaching during fall 2019 when I taught MUSC 120 Foundations in Music. In the class unit on Performance and Performativity, I shared with the class the Program for the dedication of the Confederate Monument (i.e., Silent Sam), which occurred on McCorkle Place in 1913. The dedication ceremony featured music, including a performance of “Dixie.” The lesson plan for that class centered around two questions. First, what does performance entail by way of enacting sounds and gestures to express ideas of patriotism, allegiance, or racial identity? Second, how has singing “Dixie” served as a performative soundtrack for the Lost Cause and how has it embodied the performativity of whiteness?
It should go without saying that this class material and these questions were difficult not only for me to present but for most, if not all of the students to engage with. Then again holding ourselves accountable to our mission should challenge us every day, every semester to connect what we teach and study with what is going right and what is going wrong in the world.
Questioning what we have taken for granted is unsettling for a reason. Watching the insurrectionists break through the thin lines of police security and into the Capital to then occupy the Senate chambers with yet little or no resistance, and then to walk out freely was an act in the performance of privileged whiteness for everyone to see. Contrast that scene with this past summer’s militarized presence in DC in response to Black protesters of police brutality. Such scenes seem to exist in a vacuum separate from where music typically resounds and is taught. But if we ask the difficult questions about structural forces that connect systems and histories of privilege, we may come to the realization that what we have learned, performed, and taught in departments of music across the country for generations has been shaped by what Professor Philip Ewell refers to as the white racial frame.
The Department of Music’s mission can be more than aspirational if we choose to act. The mission as it exists online is intended for all of us to visit and revisit and revisit again as one way of holding ourselves—students, faculty, and staff alike—accountable to what it can mean to create, perform, research, study, and teach music and to support these activities in safe and vibrant spaces for everyone.
I end with and find everlasting inspiration in the words of Representative John Lewis, who on June 27, 2018, tweeted “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble. #goodtrouble”
Chair and Professor, Department of Music