In the last few weeks, my email inbox has been filled with statements of solidarity for racial justice, and that got me thinking. I have read a great deal of material, watched and listened to in-depth reports on TV and radio, and have made a life-long habit of studying history. However, I make no claim to expertise on the subject and am writing largely from my heart. Racism and inequality are subjects about which I could write many pages to reflect my frustration. To counter its shameful history is one reason I have made easily accessible music and dance an integral part of my life. Leading people in dances that are multicultural, community building, and joyful keeps my spirits high and hopeful that even deeply embedded bigotry can be overcome.
Since 1996, my trio “Peter, Paul & George” has been leading programs of dance and music from more than 60 countries in close to 700 elementary schools and many libraries. We include information about cultural influences in music and dance in order to educate about our connectedness and to heal the world from divisiveness. Nobody is born racist or prejudiced. But we all have these tendencies because we live in a society that has institutionalized racist behavior and thinking. If something as insidious as racism can be learned, then it can be unlearned. I pledge that I will make every effort to be aware of and interrupt my own and others’ racism and prejudice.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. locks arms with his aides as he leads a march of several thousands on March 17, 1965 in Montgomery, Ala. [Credit: AP]
One of my most treasured memories is watching (on TV) Martin Luther King and the March on Washington with my father in 1963. Martin became one of my heroes who continues to inspire me to this day. Another hero of mine is Pete Seeger, who, of course, was very involved with the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King and Pete Seeger both felt that loving fellow human beings and participating was essential to our survival. In fact, a memorable quote of Pete’s is “Participation – that’s what is gonna save the human race.”
One of my favorite songs relating to prejudice that deeply moves me is “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught”, Written by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein for “South Pacific.”
Actors John Kerr and France Nguyen in a scene from the 1958 film South Pacific. [Credit: 20th Century Fox/Getty Images]
You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear, you’ve got to be taught from year to year
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught
To be afraid of people
Whose eyes are oddly made
And people whose skin is a different shade
You’ve got to be carefully taught
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late
Before you are six or seven or eight
To hate all the people your relatives hate
You’ve got to be carefully taught – Rogers and Hammerstein
Resources About Black Influence and Racism in Folk Music & Dance
DanceFlurry Organization is an affiliate of Country Dance and Song Society (CDSS). CDSS recently sent some great resources to help us learn more about the distorted history and contributions of African American music and dance. All members of the national organization received the following resources:
Bessie Jones, one of the most popular performers on the 1960s and ’70s folk circuit, on the cover of GET IN UNION, a collection of her classic recordings with the Georgia Sea Island Singers, combined with previously unavailable solo and small-group performances captured by Alan Lomax between 1959 and 1966.
A book that taught me a lot about African American singing and playparty games and dances passed down through generations, including the most popular one of all, Zudio (Zodiac), is called Step It Down by Bessie Jones and Bess Lomax Hawes. Bessie performed at the Old Songs Festival in the early 1980s. Here is more information about her.
My final message is from Pete: “We Shall Overcome.” Even when I feel hopeless, hearing Pete singing this gives me a glimmer of optimism.
Disclaimer: These statements do not necessarily reflect the views of Dance Flurry Organization, Country Dance and Song Society, Old Songs, Inc, or any of the musicians.
Paul Rosenberg is a founder of the DanceFlurry Organization and the Flurry Festival, and teaches and leads family and community dances throughout the Capital Region.