Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon (1942 – ) is a lauded musician, songleader, historian of African American religious music and human rights activist. She is founder and former director of Sweet Honey in the Rock, the internationally-known black women’s a cappella ensemble. A native of southwest Georgia, Dr. Johnson Reagon was a founding member of the SNCC Freedom Singers in the early 1960s, and has, since that time, dedicated her life and work to using the rich vocal traditions of African American music as organizing tools in movements for peace, justice and human rights.

All over the world, where women and men join in movements for justice, hope and transformation, one great discovery is always powerfully present. Everywhere in the midst of such transformative struggles, we see human spaces unexpectedly opened. The participants in these movements for democratic change discover great new potentials in their lives, opportunities for loving, serving, creating new realities they never before dreamed possible. In these situations new lives are created. New strengths are discovered. New voices sounded.

Bernice Johnson Reagon is a magnificent example of this extraordinary reality. She was born in the early 1940s in Southwest Georgia, daughter of a gifted black Baptist pastor and a devoted churchwoman mother. By the time she was a teenager she became aware that “something was happening with black people and I didn’t want it to happen without me.” That “something” burning into Reagon’s consciousness was, of course, the rise of the post-World War II African-American movement to challenge the southern ways of segregation and white supremacy and to open America’s democracy to new life and new truth for all its people. Though it is usually referred to as the “Civil Rights Movement,” this was even more fundamentally a movement to transform America, its black and white people and the future of its democracy. Seen from a global perspective the movement was also a vital part of the world-wide rising of peoples of color–in Africa, Asia and Latin America–to assert their God-given human rights to self-determination and to challenge the assumption that white people had the right and responsibility to control the destinies of non-white peoples all over the world.

Contrary to her fears, Reagon did not sleep through this transformative period in America. Instead, she became a crucial part of the Freedom Movement (as it was most often called by its black and white participants) and it transformed both her magnificent singing voice and her sense of who she was and what her life was for. Beginning in her own community of Albany, Georgia in the early 1960s Reagon organized, marched, sat-in, and went to jail as a leading member of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), the front-line, risk-taking nonviolent soldiers of the southern movement who traveled across the south challenging the anti-democratic white-controlled status quo. Wherever she went, confronting unjust law officers in the line of march, living through harsh prison times, or standing in front of movement mass meetings, Reagon carried the songs, transforming the ones she had first heard in church, just as she was being transformed, finding a new voice within herself that she had never known before. Everywhere she sang, Reagon realized not only that she had a new voice, but she had a new purpose in singing. It was in the course of those powerful movement days in Albany that my wife, Rosemarie, and I first met Bernice. We were deeply impressed by her determined spirit and her marvelous gift of song leading.

Raising that newly-discovered struggle-honed voice with others, Bernice helped to create The Freedom Singers, a quartet of two male and two female SNCC freedom workers who took the songs and stories of the movement across the south and the nation. The Freedom Singers brought information and inspiration and raised thousands of dollars for the constantly cash-strapped SNCC forces. After the birth of her two children, Toshi and Kwan–the fruit of her marriage to Cordell Hull Reagon, one of her fellow movement workers and Freedom Singers–Bernice began to travel less and set her attention to completing her formal education. She returned to Spelman College in Atlanta to finish her undergraduate degree and in the same period founded The Harambee singers, a women’s a cappella group.

During her time at Spelman Bernice became one of my first and best history department majors. (So I was not surprised when she developed into one of her generation’s foremost cultural historians.) Beyond the campus, as Rosemarie indicates below, our families shared a large old house and many new cultural and political projects. For instance, working with the late literary critic and blues lover, Stephen Henderson of Morehouse College, Bernice gave important leadership in creating a pioneering community cultural event called the Penny Festival. Filled with the music, dance, history and great hope of the African American community, it was open to anyone who could spare a one-cent admission fee. Always displaying an unerring and creative gift for democratic cultural organizing, Bernice knew — and still knows — how to encourage others to develop their best gifts, never overwhelming us with her own magnificent power, and never accommodating herself to careless work by others. In the early 1970s Bernice and her children moved to Washington, D.C. where she entered a doctoral program in history at Howard University.

Not long after moving to Washington, Bernice almost accidentally took on what became the next major challenge of her life. Responding to the urging of others and to her own belief that it was necessary to share with younger generations what she had learned about the great treasures of African-American musical traditions, Bernice organized ‘Sweet Honey in the Rock’. This award-winning black women’s vocal ensemble became one of the major cultural points of connection between the Black Consciousness Movement, the Women’s Movement and various movements for Third World solidarity in the 1970s, 80s and 90s. Following Reagon’s recent retirement, the group now continues under Bernice’s direction to gift the nation and the world with a contemporary, movement-shaped manifestation of the African-American song tradition. In recent years, Bernice has retired from a prolific and creative tenure as curator for the Smithsonian Institute in the area of African American history and culture. She is also professor emeritus at the American University in Washington, D.C.

Along the way from her life as a gifted teenager in Dougherty county, one of Georgia’s most dangerous locales for Black people, Bernice has continued to stay wide awake to all the transformation that has happened in the social and political experience of African Americans. She has in fact contributed a remarkable share to the on-going work to transform her home state, her home region and the entire nation into the democratic communities they might yet be. In our interview with her, Bernice Johnson Reagon urges all of us — and especially young people — to step outside of the “safety zone,” to create healthy new life for ourselves and for our country as we work unremittingly toward “a more perfect union.”

Vincent Harding
Co-founder and Chairperson, The Veterans of Hope Project
April 2000

A Song in the Time of Dying

When my children were young we lived in a large, wood frame house on the corner of Ashby and Fair streets in southwest Atlanta, Georgia. 201 Ashby Street. My husband, our daughter and son, and I lived on the second floor of the house. Bernice Johnson Reagon and her family lived on the first floor. Most of my daughter Rachel’s earliest memories are from that house: Running in the backyard under the gargantuan black walnut tree with her little brother, Jonathan and with Bernice’s children Toshi and Kwan. Watching the Morehouse and Morris Brown marching bands parade down Fair street at homecoming from the perfect vantage point of Bernice’s front porch. Following, instinctively, the allure of the thick, warm diapasons of the women rehearsing a cappella in Bernice’s living room — the Harambee Singers.

There were always friends and relatives visiting the Reagon’s downstairs. We often visited Bernice’s apartment ourselves–sitting in the rocking chair or resting in her brother Junior’s hammock in the sunroom. The exciting conversations drew us in quickly and the soft, laughing timbres of Doughtery and Lee county Georgia voices mixed memory and present comfortably in my head. My grandparents, my parents and most of my brothers and sisters were born less than fifty miles away from Bernice’s home town. The family moved to Chicago in the early years of the Great Migration, and although I was born up north, the sounds of southern language, southern music and southern love were the sounds of my childhood. Bernice is family. And as my nephews and nieces came to stay with us at various times, they too formed their own interlaced connections with Bernice, Junior, their sister Mae Frances and other members of the extended Johnson clan.

Once, in the late 1960s, my mother’s sister, Aunt Hettie, came south. Her only daughter Juanita had recently died and Aunt Hettie was taking it very hard. Hettie and her son, Billy, came first to Atlanta and then went further south to Leesburg, Macon and Albany to see old friends and family there. When they came back to our house from their sojourn in the small towns in southwest Georgia, Hettie was sitting upstairs in the kitchen and my nephew Charles asked Bernice to come up and sing some familiar songs for her. Hal-le-lu, Hal-lelu, Hal-lelu, Bernice began, in the bright-slow, lingering tones of rural black southwest Georgia congregational singing. Hal-le-lu, Hal-lelu my lord. I’m gonna see my friends again, hal-le-lu. As Bernice continued, Aunt Hettie began to hum a little and raise her hand to shake it gently now and again. “Yes, Lord,” she would say softly. “That girl knows all the songs,” she looked at Charles, smiling. “All them old songs!” Bernice would finish one and ease gentle into another, the thick velvet thread of her contralto lining one hymn seamless into the early moments of the next. Soon Charles added his sweet, full tenor voice to the music and after awhile all in the room slipped back into a place half-in-memory, half-in-heart. A fellowship of mending. Bernice did that for us, for Aunt Hettie, for Juanita. The power in her voice was (and is) an old power. It is a power of trees and turn-rows, of balms and boulders, of aching and making and aching some more. And it is the power of family, of our lacing and unlacing our lives, of our belonging to each other and to those who came before us and to those who left too soon.

Rosemarie Freeney Harding
May 2000

Childhood Religion

Well, the first time I ran into the term religion, people were asking whether you had any. You know, some people had religion and some people didn’t have religion. It wasn’t a good thing if you didn’t have it. If you didn’t have it, you needed to go find it. This was done with some pressure. I can remember sitting on the mourner’s bench in the Baptist church which is where you sit, if you don’t have it. During revival meeting, that first bench is for those who are not saved. We were called sinners. The whole focus of the revival meeting was for us. And one of the strongest images is that the older people who had religion would pray for us. When they prayed they went down on their knees. They would be like this and there would be a table and they would go down; and when they went down all of us who were on that bench had to go down too, because theoretically you were supposed to be there to be seeking. So, if somebody was going to pray for you, you had to pray for yourself. You had until you were twelve to get religion because your sins were carried by your parents until you were twelve. After you were twelve you were on your own. I remember asking my mother how old was she when she joined the church. And she said, “Seventeen.” I thought, “Why did it take you so long?” She was like five years out there with no covering of any kind. She said she had to wait until she believed. That was another word that went around. You had to “believe.”

I went to a church where you could not sing out loud in the service until you had been saved. During the service the music was made for us; and you know, you are in church and you are not supposed to move that much, if you are a child. You are not supposed to wiggle your foot. You don’t get out of the seat. You don’t get down. You don’t walk around. You sit. You can go to sleep, if you like, but you don’t mess around. You just sit there. And the services are three to four hours. The sound is everywhere. The sound always started from a seated position. Nobody was standing. The song was raised from a seated position and then people joined in. Nobody ever got to the end of a line without having company. People would just creep in and grow the song. And then when I joined the church, I could then sing out loud. And I used to think that proof that I had religion was whether I knew how to sing all of the songs.

The Movement and the Singing

At Albany State College we began to protest things. We’d marched around jail. They had arrested students for trying to buy bus tickets from the “white” window at Trailways bus station and we had marched from the campus in sympathy with them. By this time the SNCC people were there and we had decided we were going to do this march. There were no people at the meeting point, maybe six or seven of us. It was decided that was too few so we were going to classrooms. We went to classrooms and told people to come to the march. Then we left the campus and headed out and maybe there were ten people. So, I just kept my face ahead. I knew if I turned around, I would just run back to the campus. When we got to the bridge, you have to turn to walk across the Flint River bridge. Annette, who was walking with me said, “Bernice, look back.” I would not look back. I just kept walking. She said, “Bernice, look back.” I looked back and as far as I could see, all the way back to the campus, there were people. I tell you I never knew where they came from. I never heard them coming. Those kids, students, left their classes and joined that line. It was like this, good-goodness-it-can-happen, sort of thing. The power of finding that you can step out and sometimes you’ll have company before you get there.

We circled the jail twice and went back to Union Baptist Church and Charlie Jones said, “Bernice, sing a song.” I started “Over My Head” and the spiritual is Over my head/I see trouble in the air. So I flipped it and flipped “trouble” into “freedom.” It was the first time I had ever done that, especially, with a sacred song that was a spiritual that came from slavery. I realized that there was something about the march that I had done that had moved me to a position where I could use the songs that I had been taught and I could actually use them in my life to speak.

The changing of my voice came after jail. By the time I got out of jail I was hoarse. I could barely speak. In the first mass meeting, they asked me to sing. I sang the same song, Over My Head/I Hear Freedom in the Air, but my voice was totally different. It was bigger than I’d ever heard it before. It had this ringing in it. It filled all of the space of the church. I thought that was because I had been to jail. It was because I had stepped outside of the safety zone.

I tell people, if you don’t sometimes walk through trouble, you’ll never get to meet the rest of yourself. That’s why I always think “Wade in the Water” is like, “Go ahead. Yeah, it’s rough. Go ahead. Yeah, you’re going to be in a trouble. Go ahead.” You know. That’s what I thought. I thought my voice was like that because I had gone to jail. And maybe if I’d never gone to jail, I would not have ever gotten to know that part of my singing. It was a blessing.

On Family and Being a Fighter

My father was the chaplain on the executive board of the Albany Movement and I was on the executive board as one of the student members. My mother and Mrs. Clark, when we were arrested and in the Lee County Stockade, they cooked all of this food and drove out to the Lee County Stockade and the jailers wouldn’t let them give it to us. They had to take their food back. So my family was very present [in the movement]. There was one point when my father said, “Let us take it now. You all have gotten it started. You all go back to school.” I told him I didn’t get it started for him to take it over. He could be in it if he wanted to be. In jail there was one lady who was a minister’s wife who said she was representing her husband and wasn’t I representing my father? I told her, no!

When I left school — [for me] to leave school was a very traumatic experience for my parents. They thought I was pregnant because that’s why [people usually left school] — when you done ruined everything. Then when I told them I wasn’t pregnant they thought I had lost my mind because I was on a full scholarship at Spelman and I just walked away from school. That was very, very hard for them. I remember — I think I was away from home for over a year before I went home. My family is not a hugging family. We pull toes — anybody know what I’m talking about? Well, we do a few things that are physical, but we don’t hug. And I remember getting out of the car, walking in the yard. My mother came out of the house and hugged me. I said [to myself], “Hmm, I’ll stay away for more than a year next time.”

Congregational Singing

I’m basically a nineteenth century singer which means that I’m not a soloist, I’m a song leader. And song leaders start songs but you can’t finish them without some help. I can execute solo but basically I’m a song leader. So singing does not make sense to me without the congregation. Because the point of the singing for the congregation is to form the community. It’s like the song is not in and of itself a product. The song is not a product. The song exists as a way to get to the singing. And the singing is not a product. The singing exists to form the community. And there isn’t anything higher than that that I’ve ever experienced.

[In] western formal choral tradition, which I’ve performed and I think I’m a little rusty but probably could slightly get to now, there’s an aim for a blend so you cannot distinguish where the parts are coming from. With congregational singing, I could drive up to the church and they could be singing and I could tell you who was there; because the individual timbres of a voice never disappear. And so one of the things I think that’s important for democracy is that congregational style where the individual does not have to disappear and it does not operate as an anti-collective expression. There are some others in the repertoire with the “I” songs–”We Shall Overcome,” was originally “I Will Overcome.” “We Shall Not Be Moved,” was “I Shall Not Be Moved.” I’m so glad they didn’t change “This Little Light of Mine/I’m Gonna Let It Shine.” But if you’ve got a group of people and all of them are saying “I”, you actually have a group. If you have a group of people and they are saying “we”, you don’t know who is going to do what. And you know, just try to organize something. You say, “We gon bring food tonight.” If you are the nervous wreck organizer, you will leave that meeting and you will end up bringing enough food for everybody because you won’t know who or if anybody’s going to bring anything. So you’re the one who comes in–you’ve got the vegetables, and the chicken, and the cake just in case because nobody said, “I’m bringing this.” “I’m bringing that.” You don’t get a group until you get some individuals who will say “I’m in.”

Songforms and Democracy

There are so many different ways to deal with developing leadership, but, first, you have to not trust yourself as a leader. You have to put yourself in the position to be overthrown. You have to not want to die in the leadership position. For that one you can’t look at the black church as a model. I found that looking at the song forms and the game forms, there are forms where every time the cycle of the song or game turns, there is another “it”. And you who were the leader one minute is the follower the next. I think so often about this principle of being in a group of followers who are also a group of leaders. And in the songs it happens. In black singing, I can raise a song and then the next verse comes from someplace else in the room. The person doesn’t have to come to the front, and nobody turns around to see who is leading. They just follow. There are times when it comes up the second time, there are two voices leading two different verses and one voice pulls out and the other voice sails forward. I never figured out how that works. But I’ve seen it, I’ve seen it. And it’s a most amazing experience. There’s another thing of never having to audition in a congregational gathering. You are a member of the congregation when you walk in the door. All you have to have is courage to make your voice be heard when the song is raised. There is no audition that says, “You’re good enough now to lead. You’re good enough now to sing.” I think that teaches us so much about democracy.

Eldering

I try to tell older people who ask me about the state of the culture and transmission not to die with what they know. That it is of no use for you to know the culture and to talk to me about the young people who don’t know it and then you go to your grave with it. Empty yourself. Which means you’ve got to be in some kind of relationship with somebody who is younger than you. What I tell adults is if you are forty you need to be telling me about the twenty-year-olds you are in contact with, and the teenagers, and the people under seven. There are just hundreds of different ways to do it. Sometimes it’s just like seeing a child and saying something to a child so the child, for that day, know they lit up your life. And to be serious about parenting and being elders. This whole thing of staying young is not all it’s cooked up to be. The people of the sixties, we–our challenge of being teachers and elders… And when you cross fifty you are an elder. I don’t care what you look like, you are supposed to be holding that position. You are how many years older than most of the people in the movement? So [at] fifty you are supposed to be holding down and ready to block for the radicals who are turning twenty.

Understanding the Movement

I think the movement changed my understanding of the church. That was really amazing for me to actually understand church. There were songs that I heard for the first time, the lyrics, because of the movement, and they were church songs. And I think the old people who were singing them were singing them out of their lives and their belief. But until I used my life to stand for right I didn’t understand the songs. And also, I actually understood the crucifixion in a different way. I was able because of the movement, to really understand lynchings as a kind of crucifixion. I thought, you know there are a bunch of people who could just sit down with Jesus and they could talk a while. The point of Jesus was not inaccessibility, the distance, so perfect you would never, ever even think about trying to be like him. Because I was in the movement, I thought I had some human experiences that made so much more of what I’d heard about Jesus accessible to me. The reach was not so far.

Books

Bernice Johnson Reagon and Sweet Honey in the Rock. We Who Believe in Freedom: Sweet Honey in the Rock …Still on the Journey. New York: Anchor Books, 1993

Bernice Johnson Reagon.  If You Don’t Go, Don’t Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition. University of Nebraska Press, 2001

Audio and Video Recordings

Voices of the Civil Rights Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1966, Smithsonian Folkways, compiled and annotated by Bernice Johnson Reagon

“Wade in the Water”: African American Sacred Music Traditions Smithsonian Folkways, 4 volume set, compiled and annotated by Bernice Johnson Reagon

The Songs are Free: Bernice Johnson Reagon with Bill Moyers, video interview; producer, Gail Pellett, VHS, 57 min, 1991.  View excerpt here: link

Selected albums by Bernice Johnson Reagon

“Give Your Hands To Struggle”
“River of Life/Harmony One”
“Songs of Freedom”

Selected albums by Sweet Honey in the Rock

“Feel Something Drawing Me On”
“Freedom Song”
“Twenty-Five”
“Sacred Ground”
“I Got Shoes”
“Still on the Journey”
“Breaths”
“In This Land”

Web Links

Songtalker.  Bernice Johnson Reagon’s website. Link

Sweet Honey in the Rock, founded by Bernice Johnson Reagon, is an African American female a cappela ensemble with deep roots in the sacred music of the black church, spirituals, hymns, gospels as well as jazz, popular music and freedom songs. Link

Wade in the Water: African American Sacred Music Traditions vols I-IV, National Museum of American History Exhibit; producer, Bernice Johnson Reagon. Link

Smithsonian Folkways, Artist Spotlight. Link