Today, on what would have been the 87th birthday of Miles Dewey Davis, III, one of the greatest artists and deep thinkers of the 20th century, I found myself reflecting on the legacy of his music and its importance for those of us in the field of Black Studies. Chalk it up to the positive vibes of “commencement season,” but this time of the year frequently puts me in reflection mode. Something about the rituals of final exercises at the University of Virginia, particularly watching young people of African descent celebrate their journeys with their families and the community of elders who’ve supported them over the years, reinforces in my mind the importance of ensuring that our students, particularly African American and African Studies majors, understand Black Studies’ connection to a much larger political project and humanistic enterprise.
Simply put, Black Studies is about more than compiling information on the latest manifestations of the “Negro problem”; it also entails contemplative engagement with the marvelous, a reckoning with the life courage of Harriet Tubman, the wisdom of Du Bois, the unwavering humanism of King, the radical vision of Ella Jo Baker, the c-notes of Louis Armstrong, the plaintive cries of Coltrane’s horns, and the sacrifices of the millions whose blood, sweat, and tears have and continue to contribute to the black liberation struggle.
If we the people who are darker than blue are to reach higher ground, then we must be knowledgeable of and conversant with the best of our traditions.
Thoughts about the best of our traditions and the marvelousness of our experiences (then and now) guided me as I prepared two of my students’ graduation gifts: a flash drive containing a small sampling (4GB) of my music library. As some might be well aware, over the past three years I’ve taught several music-oriented courses, including “The Sounds of Blackness,” which this semester had an enrollment of 146. When putting together the music, three questions guided my selections: What will the students enjoy? Which particular songs best represent our class experiences? And what do my students NEED to know?
Expectedly, the genres of music ran the gamut, from the soul of Aretha Franklin to the knee-deep funk of Parliament to the revolutionary tomes of Nina Simone.
In my selections, Miles Davis was well represented not just because he’s my favorite jazz musician but because his career and his disciplined pursuit of artistic excellence illuminate so many of the themes covered in my AAS classes: the elasticity and life-sustaining energy of black culture, the importance of ancestral remembrance and intergenerational dialogue, the power and complexity of language, the strength of community, and the interconnectedness between the sacred and the secular.
More than twenty-two years have passed since Miles entered the ancestral realm but the power of his legacy remains quite palpable. Moreover, his life, though full of complexities and contradictions, still has much to teach us.
To the graduating class of 2013, I hope you take a little bit of Miles on your journey. Look forward and embrace the possibilities of the future, but never hesitate to rely on the wisdom of your ancestors. Remained anchored in the beautiful traditions of Black Studies and always take time to appreciate the marvelous that is within and around you.
Words can’t begin to express how much I appreciated teaching you and learning from you.
Congratulations on completing an important phase in your life’s journey!