Story posted November 05, 2009
It took a while for students to figure out who she was.
Tranise Foster '11 signed up for Judith Casselberry's course Black Women, Politics, Music, and the Divine simply because she "had never seen a class like that ever listed at Bowdoin."
The course examines the convergence of politics and spirituality in the musical work of contemporary black women singer-songwriters in the United States. Classes include videos of musical performances by the likes of Amazonian diva Grace Jones, gospel great Shirley Caesar, and jazz giant Abbey Lincoln.
Students lead the classroom discussions. Debates about their own experiences or perceptions are as much a legitimate part of the mix and often function as a gateway to understanding leading scholarship on race, gender, spirituality and music.
"The class is about black women, and as black women ourselves we're looking at what came before and what's going on now," says Foster," an Africana Studies major. "To go behind the music and find out what the [artist's] ideology is, is very revealing to me. We need to know what to build on and what to change. And I want to change the future ..."
What Foster had happened on was an innovative, flagship course in Bowdoin's burgeoning Africana Studies program.
Unbeknownst to her, it was being taught by a cutting-edge Africana Studies scholar who also happened to be an internationally known singer and a leading figure in the women's music movement.
Assistant Professor of Africana Studies Judith Casselberry, who recently came to Bowdoin from Princeton University, also is a vocalist/guitarist who performs with the renowned Hot Corn in the Fire, and she has shared the stage with Odetta, Richie Havens, Meshelle Ndegeoceollo and Stevie Wonder, among others.
Students discovered her background only after Casselberry's name came up in the reading about legendary a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, with whom she maintains close ties.
These are connections Casselberry rarely brings to class: "I'm cautious about interjecting too much anecdotal information," she says, "because I don't want students to feel as though my experience may trump how they think about the material. I want them to have the space to actually engage and critique and draw their own conclusions."
What she does bring is a richly interwoven mix of artists, lyrics, videos, CDs, and scholarly material that uses music as a lens for understanding community, identity, power, sexuality, resistance, and spiritual renewal of black women throughout U.S. history.
"I feel like I'm able to bring the theoretical and the performing together in the classroom," says Casselberry. "I want to push students to question larger concepts, such as the production of knowledge and who we consider to be intellectuals. There is a culture in the academy that can tend to steer us in a particular direction if we're not careful to stay open to the organic intellectuals of the world."
Casselberry's own transition to both activist/artist and academic began pragmatically: "I really liked performing and touring for a living, but I started to think about long-term plans. What am I going to be doing when I'm tired of getting on a plane and going someplace?"
A friend at Wesleyan University suggested she check out the Ethnomusicology Masters program there, and Casselberry discovered a field that both resonated with her life observations and experiences, and offered a theoretical framework for blazing new trails in black feminist studies.
As Casselberry found her own life views being transformed by the study of critical social theories of race, gender, and sexuality, she became captivated by the idea of contributing to discourses of feminism, particularly those by and for African American women, who have historically been marginalized.
During her doctoral studies in African American Studies and Anthropology at Yale University, Casselberry conducted research on "a particular form of female power" in a seemingly unlikely quadrant—an Apostolic Pentecostal church in Queens, N.Y.
There, women are excluded from formal leadership and adhere to strict rules concerning dress, obedience to their husbands, and prohibition of "worldly" activities such as listening to secular music or dancing.
"Women who are involved in fundamentalist religions where submission and obedience are central to doctrine and practice are often left out of the discourses of power," observes Casselberry. "I think that there are so many women globally who adhere to religious practices where that's a part of it that there's much more we need to understand about how they operate in those worlds. That it's not a total acquiescence of self."
Casselberry immersed herself in the True Deliverance Church, attending services four days a week for nearly two years. Over time, she was invited into homes. Women's stories emerged, and with them, Casselberry pieced together a nuanced understanding of the personal skills required for chosen submission—versus forced oppression.
"Theirs is not blind obedience, but submission to a higher power," observes Casselberry. "These women allow men to lead, and they must consciously work at doing it ... holy women acquire their skills over time. I have had many women tell me, you have to have the power to submit. Everybody can't do it."
"It kind of turns a lot of things on its head, you know?" adds Casselberry, smiling. "Because if we think about power in the ways that our society has led us to believe it operates, it's power over, it's a domination. But these women see their power in the biblical sense. To become spiritually mature means to submit to a higher power and to walk as Christ walked. That's where they see their center of power."
That ability to quietly upend traditional ideas plays out in the classroom as well, where Casselberry is more facilitator than lecturer.
Students take turns as discussion moderators, developing their own questions based on the reading. Casselberry interjects when necessary to contextualize, synthesize and clarify the materials.
"I'm generally a pretty shy student in any class and this is the class that I speak the most in," says Spanish major Martha Clarke '11, who is the only Caucasian student enrolled. "It's pretty refreshing to me to be in a minority," adds Clarke. "It's eye opening being in a class with six or seven black women, me and a few other students, and just hearing their personal testimonies about their experiences.
"Black women are still seeking their place in society," she says, "so looking at how these musicians are using both their writing and music to create the space for both collective and individual voices is pretty amazing."
Tranise Foster says the course gives every student "a safe space to question who we are and what we believe. It gives us the intellectual space where we can debate things; we all see things differently. It doesn't destroy us. It unites us.
"We're definitely real in that class; if we don't agree you'll know. But at the end of class, we're still laughing. In a larger class, if I tell a story or disagree, I feel people won't understand as much as I want or they might generalize ... that all black people feel this way. Or they might be afraid to speak. It's very sensitive. Sometimes that dialogue is really needed."
Probing discussions of African American experiences must become a central, vibrant presence at liberal arts institutions, notes Casselberry. But the approach can be applicable to "anything and everything," she says.
"African-American studies as a discipline is something that operates across methodologies and disciplines and that's one of the beauties of it at its best," she says. "It operates in ways that people live. People don't live in boxes, they operate across borders and communities."
That being the case, Bowdoin's community has just gotten a whole lot richer.