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Black Music 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 second 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 preceding webinar, “Black Women and the American University: Eileen Southern’s Story,” on November 15, 2021.

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 BlackAmericans: 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 brief tour of the Eileen Southern digital exhibition with Katie Callam (postdoctoral fellow, Fellowships & Writing Center, Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences) and Christina Linklater (Keeper of the Isham Memorial Library, Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library, Harvard University).

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

Music Scholars Discuss the Legacy of Harvard Professor Eileen Southern at Radcliffe Event (Harvard Crimson, 4/8/22)


Marva Griffin Carter, associate professor of music history, popular and world musics, School of Music and Department of African American Studies, Georgia State University 

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

Guthrie P. Ramsey, Jr., Edmund J. and Louise W. Kahn Term Professor of Music, University of Pennsylvania 

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

Exhibition Website

Eileen Southern and the Music of Black Americans

Event Video

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

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