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event • Lectures

Black Women and the American University: Eileen Southern’s Story

Portrait of Professor Eileen Southern
Portrait of Professor Eileen Southern, August 4, 1986. Courtesy of Lilian Kemp Photography

Join us for the first of two one-hour webinars exploring the legacy of Eileen Southern, author of The Music of Black Americans: A History and founder and editor of The Black Perspective in Music. This program is part of the broader Eileen Southern Initiative, housed in the Harvard University Department of Music. The initiative includes a digital exhibition as well as an on-site exhibition in Harvard’s Loeb Music Library, a film, a spring concert by The Aeolians of Oakwood University, and a second webinar, “Black Music and the American University: Eileen Southern’s Story,” on April 7, 2022.

In 1976, Eileen Southern (1920–2002) became the first African American woman tenured in Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS). Five years before her FAS appointment, Southern published The Music of Black Americans: A History (W. W. Norton, 1971), a now legendary text that marked a historic intervention into the European-dominated field of musicology. The book is a densely researched survey of African American music. It reveals an open-minded attitude that was exceptional for its day, placing Black concert traditions alongside popular music, ragtime, jazz, and, in its third edition, hip hop. As a result, it confronts the high-low cultural divide so common for its era. The book remains a standard source on an expansive subject. 

More than that, The Music of Black Americans inspired Black music studies, a field of research that has continued to expand in the 21st century.

Southern also founded and edited the academic journal The Black Perspective in Music (1973–1990), which she produced in the basement of her home in St. Albans, Queens (New York City). The Black Perspective burst into the field of musicology during an era when its signature publications were focused on European traditions. At the same time, Southern played an important institutional role at Harvard. She was central in developing the Department of Afro-American Studies (now African and African American Studies), serving as an early chair, and was on the faculty of the Department of Music, where she taught courses on Black music and Renaissance musical notation.

The program will include a short film, Light the Way Home: Eileen Southern’s Story, which introduces Southern, her work, and her legacy. The film is directed by the Harvard undergraduates Uzo Ngwu ’23 and Daniel Huang ’22, with music by Devon Gates ’23.

Harvard Radcliffe Institute gratefully acknowledges the Perrin Moorhead Grayson and Bruns Grayson Dean’s Leadership Fund for Academic Ventures, which is supporting this event.

Radcliffe Institute Launches Digital Exhibit to Honor Eileen Southern (Harvard Crimson, 11/16/21)

Passing the Torch of Representation (Harvard Gazette, 11/15/21)

Exhibition Website

Eileen Southern and the Music of Black Americans

Event Video

Play video For Black Women And The American University Eileen Southerns Story


  • Naomi André, professor in the Arts and Ideas in the Humanities program, Department of Afroamerican and African Studies, and Women’s and Gender Studies Department, University of Michigan

  • Betty Hillmon, founder and director, Boston City-Wide String Orchestra, and registrar of Black Nativity, National Center of Afro-American Artists

  • Tammy L. Kernodle, professor of musicology, Miami University, and past president, Society for American Music

  • Carol J. Oja, director of the humanities program, Harvard Radcliffe Institute, and William Powell Mason Professor of Music, Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences

  • Braxton D. Shelley, associate professor of music, of sacred music, and of divinity, Yale University

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