By Kay Kaufman Shelemay
My richly textured year as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar has drawn to a close. As the ΦBK-Frank M. Updike Memorial Scholar, I took my charge to focus on intercultural relations quite seriously, presenting lectures and leading discussions that touched on topics relating to all varieties of cultural difference. In one of my talks, I discussed the emergence of an indigenous style of jazz from Ethiopia, providing a glimpse of an historical narrative distinct from that of jazz’s genesis in African-American experience. In a second presentation, I detailed ways in which we literally perform aspects of identity, in particular through songs such as national anthems that affirm our membership in a given polity — or, at other moments, seek to redefine the subject of our allegiance. A third talk, on music and memory, took a comparative look at music’s role in shaping and sustaining social memory in three contrasting traditions, including the Mexican-American ballad (corrido), the New Orleans jazz funeral, and hymns (pizmonim) of the Syrian Jewish diaspora worldwide.
These three presentations, offered in different settings on most of the campuses I visited, led to some stimulating moments of cross-cultural encounter. When discussing national anthems at Hamline University in Minnesota, a student from the large St. Paul Oromo-Somali immigrant community raised his hand and volunteered information regarding several popular songs that had been appropriated as anthems during situations of political instability and protest in his former homeland. A particularly memorable moment occurred at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania as I concluded my public lecture on the ways in which many music traditions enhance memory by borrowing a familiar melody from another musical domain to set a newly composed text. My final example of this compositional technique, known to musicians as “contrafactum,” was the borrowing of the melody of the well-known carol “Oh Christmas Tree,” to set a sacred Hebrew text sung at domestic rituals by Syrian Jews in Brooklyn, New York. Although most listeners smile or even giggle when they hear the striking juxtaposition of a Christian carol with a sacred Hebrew text, the Dickinson audience virtually exploded in laughter as I played a recording of the song. During the discussion period that followed, I learned that the “Oh Christmas Tree” melody had also been borrowed by Dickinson College: It was wedded to the text “Noble Dickinsonia” by Horatio C. King in 1858 and has long been the college’s alma mater.
Cross-cultural differences in many guises were highlighted throughout my Phi Beta Kappa year. Each campus was utterly distinctive in its locale as well as its culture and student populations, ranging from the cosmopolitan New York University’s vertical campus, to the sprawling expanses of the University of New Hampshire and the University of Tulsa, to the small jewel that is Reed College in Portland, Oregon, on the cusp of spring. The complexity of intercultural relations seemed to present themselves in every context.
One memorable example suggested that possibilities exist for reconciling seemingly irreconcilable differences. It occurred during my penultimate residency at Gettysburg College. One does not visit Gettysburg without having the central battle of the Civil War — and the heart-breaking polarities at the heart of that conflict — in clear view at all times. As I talked to many about the relationship of the college to the historical battlefield area in which it was situated, I heard many tales about the lively culture of the “reenactors,” individuals who come to town on memorial days and on countless other occasions, don 1860 period dress, and literally reenact the people and events of the Civil War era. I was particularly struck by conversations with Gettysburg faculty of color who described regularly bumping into visitors dressed as Confederate soldiers, waving Confederate flags. “You get used to it,” one African-American faculty member explained in response to my concerned query about these encounters. But the experience of difference has apparently opened pathways for reconciliation. One Dickinson administrator, I learned during a casual conversation over breakfast, had become as a result of these encounters a reenactor herself, researching and bringing back to life a prominent African-American woman who had lived through the Civil War in Gettysburg and who was herself a witness to the devastating events of her day. In this case, an individual intervention reconciled the seemingly irreconcilable, crossing once formidable boundaries. I thank Phi Beta Kappa and the seven campuses I visited for moments such as these that made this year both a memorable journey and enlightening experience.
Ethnomusicologist Kay Kaufman Shelemay is the G. Gordon Watts Professor of Music and professor of African and African-American studies at Harvard University. She served as a Phi Beta Kappa Visiting Scholar for the 2010-2011 academic year. Her campus visits were funded in part by a bequest from Frank M. Updike (ΦBK, Rutgers University, 1939) designated for scholars in the humanities, especially those prepared to address intercultural relations.
Photo at top: Shelemay at Hamline University, hosted by Zeta of Minnesota, March 14-15, 2011.
Since 1956, the Society’s Visiting Scholar Program has been offering undergraduates the opportunity to spend time with some of America’s most distinguished scholars. The purpose of the program is to contribute to the intellectual life of the campus by making possible an exchange of ideas between the visiting scholars and the resident faculty and students. The scholar visits are hosted by the institution’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter.
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