Peabody and Music Libraries join NMAAM to teach on the civil rights movement

Vanderbilt Libraries is partnering with the National Museum of African American Music to teach young readers about the civil rights movement through literature and music. “Social Justice and the Black Music Experience” was conceived by Peabody Library Director, Tiffeni Fontno, during her first visit to the National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM). Fontno recalled being inspired by the exhibits and their ability to tell a story, “I wanted to combine my love for children’s literature with music to create relevant experiences for students in the classroom.” Fontno brought together administrators, faculty and library leaders to transform this idea into reality. She connected with Emily Pendergrass, associate professor of Practice of Literacy Education, Holling Borne-Smith, director of the Anne Potter Wilson Music Library, Alice Randall, writer-in-residence, African American & Diaspora Studies, and children’s author Carole Boston Weatherford. A conversation with the NMAAM’s education department helped narrow the focus of this project to using Black music and musical artists.

For Randall, an education on this topic begins with spirituals, an early form of Black protest song. “We don’t know when the first enslaved African married words of protest to a melody,” noted Randall, “But we do know spirituals were well established in the 19th century and we know that in the 21st century Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” played a significant role in sustaining people protesting the murder of George Floyd and asserting the significance of Black lives.”

Randall also noted the longstanding relationship between music and civil rights, along with the richly participatory character of protest as a genre.

“Songs commonly activate individual agency in ways that other protest literatures often don’t,” notes Randall. “In the civil rights movements, everyone is invited to sing, to lead the song, to strengthen the chorus with their presence, with their sound. The person who can’t carry a tune in a bucket on the street—their voice is as significant as Mahalia Jackson’s. The song becomes a flag. If the person carrying it falls, the person next to them carries it. They are embodied, essential, and elemental protest.”

Vanderbilt and the National Museum of African American Music have worked closely together on collections, exhibitions and special events since its opening in 2021. In order to engage more directly with Vanderbilt students, the libraries are hosting a Buchanan Library Fellowship. Buchanan mentors and faculty will share their knowledge of music history, education and children’s literature and together, students will provide teaching materials for use in the K-12 classroom. With a particular focus on Black music, musical artists and social justice movements, fellows will critically examine children’s literature and social justice resources from Peabody Library’s Curriculum Materials Collection and Nashville Public Library.

Pendergrass holds an aspirational view of what students can gain from this experience and apply in their own lives as engaged members of a community. “I hope that Vanderbilt students learn that difficult topics are approachable with young children. By creating text sets and lesson ideas for teachers, I hope that the students also learn how they can support K-12 education as future musicians, political scientists, and writers.”

The Buchanan Library Fellowship will give students the opportunity to work directly with Carole Boston-Weatherford, a children’s author who deals with complex topics of social justice and civil rights. Fellows will learn to evaluate children’s literature using critical thinking, information literacy and equity frameworks. By centering the experiences of authors who research, document and narrate the Black music experience, students gain an understanding of how children’s literature can bridge discussions of hard histories and truth. For fellows who plan to teach K-12 education, this fellowship will provide a valuable set of tools for working with young folks as they come of age and develop their own identity and worldview. Boston-Weatherford has published over twelve award-winning children’s books, including The Sound the Jazz Makes and Becoming Billie Holiday. Unspeakable: The Tulsa Race Massacre won the 2022 Coretta Scott King Author award. Boston-Weatherford’s books serve as affirmations of Black history and culture.

This project is funded by Vanderbilt’s Arts, Discovery, and Innovation Fund, a fund administered by the Vice Provost Office of Arts and Libraries. The fund is a component of Discovery Vanderbilt, a campus initiative designed to serve as a catalyst for supporting new ideas and cutting-edge research.