Campus / News / February 17, 2016

Racial tensions arise in choir

Rebekah Mahon always smiles when she sings. But last year, the former Knox student made an exception.

“I would sing it, but I wouldn’t smile.”

The song was “Wade in the Water,” a well-known African American spiritual and the closing piece of the choir program last year. It wasn’t the song Mahon took issue with, but the arranger’s instructions about the dialect in which it was to be sung.

“If you sing it that way when you’re trying so hard to get a ‘slave dialect,’ it sounds like a minstrel show and that you’re mocking them even though that may not be the intent,” Mahon said.

After Mahon voiced her concern in rehearsal last winter, the choir set aside time to discuss the issue. They explored the appropriateness of a predominantly white choir singing an African American spiritual, and the use of dialect in the performance. Professor of Music and Choir Director Laura Lane brought in articles on the performance practice of African American spirituals and arranged a Skype call with a leading expert in the field. But the issue has persisted within the choir, culminating this month during a visit from world-renowned spiritual arranger Stacey Gibbs, who worked with the choir on the piece and lead an open discussion on the topic of the African American spiritual.

Mahon chose not to challenge Lane’s methods at the time to avoid engaging in a debate about her culture.

In light of their discussions and research, the choir took an anonymous survey and stated their opinions on whether or not they should keep “Wade in the Water” in the program and the appropriateness of using dialect in the performance.

The vote was 44-1. Both the song and dialect stayed in the tour program.

Mahon didn’t return to choir the next year.


Last month at Martin Luther King Jr. Convocation, the choir sang “Sit Down Servant” with the dialect, marking their 12th annual performance of a spiritual at the event.

“It’s considered to be correct performance practice to do it with some dialect,” Lane said. “How much dialect you do depends on your situation and your comfort level.”

This year, when the choir began preparing the spiritual, some student members approached Lane and expressed interest in reviving the discussion. Lane was already in contact with Stacey Gibbs, the arranger of “Sit Down Servant,” when the choir suggested bringing in an expert to lead a discussion.

Gibbs, considered to be the foremost arranger of African American spirituals in the world, seemed like the obvious choice. Given his extensive background in the history and development of the spiritual as a performance piece, he agreed to lead a open discussion about the spiritual.

Lane estimates that 75-80 people attended the event, which took place on Feb. 3 and was co-sponsored by the Department of Music, Allied Blacks for Liberty and Equality, and the Center for Intercultural Life.

There was a clear divide in the audience; choir members in front, members of A.B.L.E. in the back. Gibbs drove the conversation from the stage.

“There was a lot of pain on both sides,” Lane said. “The idea that someone would hear us sing and cry and feel that kind of sadness and pain, it was incredibly painful to be a member of the choir and hear those things said.”

Freshma Peibulu Koroye, who spoke out at the event, recalled the tense atmosphere in the room.

“The spirituals still ring true,” they said. “Especially in the racial environment that America’s in right now, now is not any time anyone wants to see these people singing these spirituals that they don’t understand.”

But opinions varied widely. Senior choir member Eric Coats thought the conversation with Gibbs was a good start, but that there’s still more work to be done to bridge the gap between the different viewpoints of the issue.

“It wasn’t really like a dialogue at all, it was more like a forum where he was the voice on high answering these questions,” Coats said.

Visiting Professor of Africana Studies Kwame Zulu Shabazz attended the event and brought a historical perspective to the discussion. The following Wednesday, Shabazz, along with Associate Professor of Gender and Women’s Studies Magali Roy-Fequiere and Associate Professor of History Konrad Hamilton met with Lane to discuss the possibility of removing the dialect.

“It’s challenging. I don’t envy white choir members on this issue actually,” Shabazz said. “Race is not easy, but we have to do it as a nation. It’s not just about the choir, it’s not just about Knox College; this is an American challenge.”

Lane had to make a tough call: follow the arranger’s recommendation and keep the dialect, or follow her colleagues suggestion to drop it. She had already met with choir board to choose the language of the survey questions, but there was still time to make the switch.

“I don’t decide these things by myself,” Lane said, “especially when it’s something this sensitive and this controversial.”

On Thursday, when the choir convened for the vote, there was no longer an option to sing the spiritual with dialect. After her conversation with her colleagues, Lane had decided to change the questions.

The song was dropped from the program.

“It was a majority, but not by a wide margin,” senior Rachel Horne said. “A lot of people are upset we’re not doing the spiritual.”

Sophomore Aidan Murphy is one of them.

“We had a meeting with Stacey Gibbs, who came and basically insisted we do it in heavy dialect, and he was so charming and energetic. Honestly, I feel like he’s right. That’s the way he wrote it, it’s the way it should be sung.”

Mahon agrees with the decision.

“I loved every other song in the program, I just didn’t appreciate that one. To me, [not smiling] was the only way I could make a statement in the sense that I still wasn’t happy in the way we were singing it.”

Julia Mondschean
Julia Mondschean is a filmmaker and journalist. She is a junior majoring in creative writing. Her documentary film and written works have appeared in the Peoria Journal Star, Galesburg Register-Mail and R_Wurd magazine. She has worked at multiple television and film production companies on the development of reality TV shows and production of documentaries for PBS and Independent Lens.

Tags:  choir controversy Martin Luther King music race

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