Bernice Johnson Reagon
Bernice Johnson Reagon receives the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities for her work as a musician and cultural historian who has raised her voice in both song and civil rights advocacy.
A woman of significant accomplishment, she has served as Distinguished Professor of History at American University, curator emerita at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History and as the founder and long-time artistic director of Sweet Honey In The Rock, a world-renowned a cappella ensemble of African-American women. Success in any one of these fields would be noteworthy, but she has combined music, a commitment to social justice and academic excellence, and has earned esteem in all three.
Music has been part of Dr. Reagon's life for as long as she can remember. She was one of eight children of a Baptist minister in rural Georgia. The family church had no piano, so she learned to create the uplifting spirit that is gospel music by singing, clapping her hands and stomping her feet.
In the 1960s, during the Civil Rights movement, the young scholarship student at Albany State College joined the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC). The college administration would not condone activist participation in marches and demonstrations and suspended her. Undeterred, she spent the next five years as an SNCC Freedom Singer, folklore field researcher and organizer of community-based cultural events. The experience set the template for the rest of her life.
Dr. Reagon studied society by confronting it. And she realized that singing was more than just entertainment, her inspired music more than just pleasing to the ear. Song was an integral part of her culture. Her ancestors had never learned to read and write, so the oral tradition was often the only way for African-Americans to pass on history through the generations. What better way than through the passionate eloquence of song?
She eventually resumed her formal education and earned a doctorate in American history. Dr. Reagon spent 20 years as a folklorist, scholar and curator at the Smithsonian. She was among the scholars who helped the national museum diversify its collections and exhibits.
She spent almost 15 years researching and five years in the production of the "Wade in the Water" project, a National Public Radio series on African-American sacred music of the 19th and 20th centuries that went on to win a prestigious Peabody Award. She has been a composer, consultant and performer for the award-winning PBS programs "Eyes on the Prize" and "We Shall Overcome."
Dr. Reagon's life's work has been centered on telling the story of African-American cultural power and traditions. She has used her unique gifts to broaden public understanding and appreciation of the African-American experience in the United States. As with our first Arts and Humanities recipient, the historian and filmmaker Henry Hampton, Bernice Johnson Reagon is being honored for her work that combines both the arts and the humanities.
Note: This profile is excerpted from the commemorative brochure published at the time of the awards' presentation.
UPDATES SINCE RECEIVING THE HEINZ AWARD
February 2011 - In 2004, Choral Arts began honoring individuals who embody the spirit of Dr. King's message of nonviolent struggle for Civil Rights with the Annual Humanitarian Award. Each year the selected individual is honored at the concert celebration. The 2011 Humanitarian Award will be presented to Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon, a major cultural voice for freedom and justice: singing, teaching and speaking out against racism and organized inequities of all kinds.- Choral Arts
January 2004 - Johnson Reagon performs for the last time with Sweet Honey in the Rock, the group she founded in 1973.- The Seattle Post-Intelligencer
November 2003 - Sweet Honey in the Rock celebrates its 30th anniversary with a special concert sponsored by the Washington Performing Arts Society at the Warner Theater. The concert will also celebrate the release of the group's seventeenth album. - Baltimore Afro-American
September 2003 - Johnson Reagon signs on to be the composer for Robert Wilson's production of Gustave Flaubert's "The Temptation of St. Anthony" to be performed in London. - The Times
Speech3/3/2003 - Acceptance Speech
Thank you. My life, the work I've done as a way of being alive, is just that, the way I've chosen to experience life in this universe. The past has not simply been what unfolded before me. At every point, I have had the freedom to choose the way I would take and have at times, made choices that list everything I had, to become who I am and to do the work I've been blessed to do.
I stand here as a "one" yet in my journey I have never been alone. I move through spaces open by those before me, walked ground that is dust of the bones of those who died so that I could walk. And then there are my partners with me, who have held my hand. My family. Good parents in life and as spirit-guides. My brothers and sisters, my children, and grandchildren, and a strong and powerful Southwest Georgia black community. They are always with me.
Sweet Honey In The Rock is so much more than a singing group. To come together with a small group of women 80 to a 100 times a year in rehearsals, meetings, concerts, and the challenge of travel, is a way of belonging to a support unit that has provided balance, growth, strength, and ongoing affirmation. Then too, there is the decision a while back, when Adisa Douglas and I decided that different and related work and struggle would move much better, were we joined in life partnership ... did so ... and so it has been joined and better. And in Washington, D.C. I am a part of a fierce community. We overtly, intentionally, created so that we actually could survive. And it is wonderful that some major forces in that community are with me tonight.
As I search for the nature of my work as a scholar and artist, I have responded to voices that have whispered and protested, saying we are not a part of the database of ordered knowledge. Our stories are not here. The nuance with which we move is not acknowledged as a part of the heart of the culture. And we were there. We are here. We do fundamentally shape and influence the cultural lifeblood of this land of our birth. I began to understand that as a scholar, I would not be revising interpretations of the history of American culture, but actually increasing the database of what is accessible of our full cultural and historical journey of African Americans, and thus helping to realign the evolving narrative of this country and our times.
As I began this work, I have had to turn again and again to black people, and sometimes white people, who have held sacred some part of this living story. And they have responded overwhelmingly with great passion, generosity, and relief, that others might know what they have for so long protected.
So as my work is honored, so too are the carriers of the tradition, and those scholars who have joined me to continue this work. This award is for me, evidence that there is a universe and that like me, it too is still alive, and thus it is moving in my mother's step by step approach to every time, to everything. At the most startling and awe inspiring times, I have been made to look up and find that the unending life energy of the universe has washed me into the light created and the aftermath of my and other's efforts, touch me, as if to say, you are my child, you my child, are making good use of the breath of life. Carry on. Thank you to the Heinz Family Foundation and especially to sister Teresa Heinz for your spirit, your wisdom, your encouragement, support, your courage and your heart. On behalf of the African-American people from which I come, I accept this award with a commitment to continue as long as I have breath.