UPDATED: November 16, 2021 at 6:00 p.m.
The Harvard Radcliffe Institute celebrated the work of Eileen Southern — the first African American woman tenured in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences — in a webinar Monday.
The webinar, entitled “Black Women and the American University: Eileen Southern’s Story,” is a part of an initiative by the Department of Music and Harvard Library to honor Southern. The program is a “collaborative act of reparative justice” that aims to “explore the intersections of race, gender, and academic power in the experiences of one woman,” according to Carol J. Oja, director of the humanities program at Radcliffe and a Music professor.
Southern was a member of the Department of Music and Department of Afro-American Studies — now the African and African American Studies Department — and taught courses on Black music and Renaissance musical notation. Monday’s event featured the world premiere of “Light the Way Home: Eileen Southern’s Story,” a new short film that explores Southern’s life and professional challenges and is directed by undergraduates Uzo L. Ngwu ’23 and Daniel Huang ’22 and features music by Devon N. Gates ’23.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Southern’s book “The Music of Black Americans: A History.” The book was first published in 1971 and provides one of the first comprehensive analyses of African American music, per Oja.
“‘The Music of Black Americans’ appeared in an era when Southern’s academic discipline — the field of musicology — had an overwhelming bias for white European music and was largely male,” Oja said. “Thus Southern wrote and taught from a subaltern position, as she confronted the academic climate of her day.”
Naomi André, a professor in the Afroamerican and African Studies and Women’s and Gender Studies departments at the University of Michigan, discussed why Southern declined to teach Black music courses in the Music department, opting to teach them in Afro-American Studies instead.
“It did not feel as though there was a space for Blackness in the Music department,“ André said, noting that she found no trace of Southern’s scholarship even though she came to Harvard for her Ph.D. shortly after Southern retired.
Tammy L. Kermodle, a Musicology professor at the Miami University of Ohio and a speaker in the event, said academic spaces may fail to acknowledge the struggles of Black women alongside their accomplishments — as was the case with Southern.
“Dr. Southern’s journey was not the journey that we know of and that we celebrate through her book, and all that she made for in terms of a foundation for this Black music historiography, but it was a journey that was also defined by stress, strain, pain, disappointment, and perhaps disillusionment,” she said.
André said she believes that Southern’s work has contributed to the overall understanding of American music, and that it sparked scholarship on the often overlooked contributions of Black women in American music studies.
“It is possible to take hits and also to thrive as a Black woman in music scholarship. Thinking about Eileen Southern helps me gain perspective,” André said. “We are planting seeds even if we do not see the full blossoming of their harvest in our own lifetimes.”
CORRECTION: November 16, 2021
A previous headline, caption, and version of this article misstated the sponsor of the initiative to honor Southern. It is sponsored by the Department of Music and Harvard Library.
It also misrepresented a quote from Carol J. Oja. Oja said that Southern’s work in the field of Black music studies came at a time when the field of musicology had an overwhelming bias for white European music and was largely male.