Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Dominique-René de Lerma: Fayetteville Observer: Keepers of history: Music that tells the African-American story

Fayetteville Observer:
Brooksie Harrington

Fayetteville Observer

Posted Tuesday, February 10, 2015;
Updated Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Brooksie Harrington doesn't just teach African-American literature to his students. He's apt to break out in song at any time during his class at Fayetteville State University.

Harrington, an associate professor in the English department, also teaches adolescent literature, 19th century American literature and composition. But the course he's most proud of, a course he designed, is The Aesthetics of Gospel.

Elements of this academic gospel appreciation and analysis course, offered every other semester, carry over into his African-American lit class.

"I use music in everything I do," said Harrington, a gospel music scholar who has written on the performance artistry of gospel great Shirley Caesar.

"Teaching here, in these courses," he said, "it is most appropriate that I talk about the evolution of spirituals, the culmination of the spiritual and literature. It is impossible to teach African-American literature without including music. It's impossible."

Blessed with a raspy tenor-baritone, the 58-year-old Harrington can accompany himself on piano or organ.

He sees his work in the classroom as preserving this heartfelt component of black history, by passing on his vast knowledge of sacred African-American music to students who more readily identify with hip-hop, pop, and contemporary rhythm and blues.

"That is my purpose," he said. "I'm a folklorist and folklorist preserver. I'm a professionally trained folklorist. That's what I do. It's very urgent for them to learn this because they don't know."

On a Tuesday afternoon in January, Harrington addressed a classroom of 14 students on the third floor of the Butler building. The day's lesson focused on Frederick Douglass, the prominent abolitionist and orator who escaped from slavery in the 1800s to become a champion of African-American rights.

"In the slavery era, one of the genres of music that was most prevalent were spirituals," Harrington said, holding his glasses in his hand as he spoke from the front of the class. He used the example of "Steal Away (Steal Away to Jesus)," one of the many songs associated with slavery.

"Steal away / Steal away / Steal away from home / I ain't got long to stay here," the Negro spiritual goes.

"My Lord calls me / Calls me by the thunder / the trumpet sounds within my soul/ I ain't got long to stay here."

"'Steal Away' is about death," said Harrington, before reciting a line from the song. "'I have not long if I stay here,' just like 'Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,' is about death. It says, 'I looked over Jordan and what did I see / A band of angels coming after me.'"

Harrington told the class, "If you want to find out about the Old Testament, look at the spirituals. Because they are full of existing messages. And they use the Old Testament characters to carry out those messages."

To support his premise, Harrington sang a slice of "Go down Moses," which specifically describes events from Exodus 7:16.

Dominique-René de Lerma

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