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Students

Black and White—and the Red, White, and Blue

10.7.10

The Kuumba Singers take the field for their sound check. The author is at far right, in the second row.

The Kuumba Singers take the field for their sound check. The author is at far right, in the second row.

As a native New Yorker, I was taught three things before my third birthday: don’t talk to strangers, never take the Cross Bronx Expressway, and always remember that the Boston Red Sox are the most evil beings since flesh-eating wolverines roamed the Earth (trust me; I’m a history concentrator). No self-respecting Yankee fan would deign to set foot in Fenway Park, except to stomp on the 2004 pennant banner. And then trip Mike Lowell. But when I was offered a chance to sing the national anthem at Fenway, I decided to take the high road—to extend an olive branch to Bostonians everywhere, and suffer through the ordeal. 

As a singer whose talent compares to that of Beyoncé’s third cousin twice removed, I would not be performing solo, not even for a team as second-rate as the Red Sox. I would be one of the Kuumba Singers. Founded in 1970 as a safe space for black students at Harvard, Kuumba is a choir dedicated to black creativity and spirituality. This past April, it celebrated 40 years of service to the black community of Harvard and the Greater Boston area.

Perhaps you are wondering what I, Brett Rosenberg, am doing in Kuumba. If so, you’re not the only one. When I go home to Chappaqua, New York, and its 95 percent white population, my membership in Kuumba invariably provokes questions.

“Brett, you know you’re white, right?”

“Brett, you know you’re Jewish, right?”

“Brett, you know it’s a singing group, right?” (I have very supportive friends.) 

But of course, they’re right to ask. By all rights I should not be there. Even though the choir is a non-audition, multicultural group, I’m constantly shocked that I—a white, Jewish “singer” whose previous vocal experience outside the shower consisted of one rendition of “Under the Sea” while wearing flippers and a crab hat—have been welcomed into the Kuumba family and rewarded with a string of incredible experiences. During my freshman year, we sang for Ted Kennedy, Joe Biden, and John Kerry at an honorary-degree ceremony for Senator Kennedy. On that year’s spring tour, we provided the soundtrack to civil-rights leader Dorothy Height’s birthday celebration.  Sophomore year, we performed at Symphony Hall, accompanied by Bobby McFerrin.

Along the way, I have found nothing but complete acceptance and welcome. While I believe that the full meaning of what we sing—its true import—cannot be fully comprehended by one who hasn’t taken the journey that these songs recount, any individual who has struggled can take comfort in this incredible music. The richness of black musical culture enables the passing down of the hurt and pain of slavery to all the descendants of those victimized by racial hatred, but it also allows others to find the experience of their own culture embedded within. No matter how hard I try, I may never be able to entirely comprehend the experience of black Americans. But by trying, I think I’ve become a better friend, a better white Jew, and a better human being. But not, unfortunately, a better dancer. There are some things that not even a Harvard education can help.

 

Wednesday, September 22,was “Harvard Night” at Fenway.  The women’s squash team and a number of other students were to be lauded for their athletic achievements, and Harvard’s ROTC cadets would serve as the honor guard for the evening. President Drew Faust was scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch, cheered on by student beneficiaries of a ticket lottery sponsored by the Harvard Alumni Association.  There was even going to be a baseball game smooshed in somewhere.  And in the midst all of that hubbub, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College would be singing the national anthem. 


 

For a baseball fan, there is nothing quite like that moment when you first emerge from the darkness under the stands and step into the light of the stadium. The brilliant green of the grass, the excited buzz of the fans, the nauseating stench of hotdog fumes—each element combines to remind you why baseball remains our national pastime.  Yankees, Red Sox, whomever you root for, any real baseball fan aches with anticipation as she strides up that ramp, knowing the excitement that awaits her. (Except for the Mets fans—but there’s always next year.)

Now imagine emerging not into row 13 of the upper deck, but onto the field. I was so overwhelmed by the experience that I can barely remember walking across the grass to take our positions behind home plate. But I do remember the choir’s collective intake of breath as our director lifted his arms to cue the beginning of the anthem. As the crowd rose and hushed, I couldn’t stop thinking that I was standing in front of thousands of people, with millions more watching on TV. I thought of my mom’s public-speaking technique for fighting butterflies: to picture the audience in their underwear. I decided this wasn’t applicable in the current situation as (a) given the massive crowd, it was far beyond my mental capacity; and (b) it was more than slightly disturbing. The entire Red Sox Nation was looking not at any players or umpires, but solely at us. We were the only ones on the field. Just us. Us and the Green Monster. Who made very little noise.

After all the hours of anxious anticipation, the actual singing of the anthem flew by in less than 90 seconds. Before I could collect my thoughts and focus on the experience before me, the bombs were already bursting in air. When we finished the anthem, the crowd cheered, we beamed, and then we had to run off the field so President Faust could throw out the first pitch (to the dignified Lowell, 10 days before his retirement—and like Faust, a cancer survivor, too).  I’m a little sad the throw went off so smoothly, as I had made it quite clear that I would be more than willing to come in as a reliever. I understand that position does not require dancing.

 

Harvard rightly boasts about the diversity of its course offerings, extracurricular activities and, above all, its student body. But to really take advantage of the Harvard experience, you have to get out of your comfort zone, and perhaps closer to a strike zone.  If you don’t try things you haven’t tried before, and engage with people whose backgrounds are totally unlike your own, diversity is just another statistic, like average class size or number of days in a row that Annenberg Hall serves squash for dinner.  On September 22, I—a white, Jewish, non-singing Yankees fan—spent a minute and a half at Fenway Park singing the national anthem as a devoted member of a group dedicated to black creativity.  My comfort zone was as far away as Baltimore is from making the playoffs (for those non-baseball fans among us, approximately the distance from Boston to Madagascar as the Oriole flies).

Needless to say, none of this is what I had in mind when I came to Harvard, which makes it exactly the reason to come to Harvard: to do not only the things I’d dreamed of doing, but the things I’d never even thought to dream. More than any lecture or lab experiment, that’s the kind of experience that changes lives and viewpoints. So while I will never be a Red Sox fan, I have to admit that the event softened me up a little.  Next time I see a David Ortiz jersey, I might hesitate before dousing it in lighter fluid.

But don’t worry, Dad. I still won’t ever take the Cross Bronx Expressway.


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