Interview with Bernice Johnson Reagon
Conducted by Marvette Pérez
From RHR #68
Bernice Johnson Reagon is Distinguished Professor of History at American University and
Curator Emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of American History. She
is a specialist in African American oral, performance, and protest traditions. Reagon
continues to perform with Sweet Honey in the Rock, the world renowned a cappella ensemble
she founded. As a solo singer, Reagon describes herself as a "song leader in the
nineteenth century African American choral tradition in search of a congregation."
During the Civil Rights Movement, Reagon was a member of the original SNCC (Student
Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) Freedom Singers. She has served as music consultant,
composer, and performer for several award-winning film and video projects. In 1989 she was
awarded a MacArthur Fellowship for her work as an artist and scholar of African American
culture. She served as principal scholar, conceptual producer, and host of the
pathbreaking Smithsonian Institution and National Public Radio series "WADE IN THE
WATER: AFRICAN AMERICAN SACRED MUSIC TRADITIONS," which began broadcast in 1994 and
won a Peabody Award. Her publications include: We Who Belive in Freedom: Sweet Honey
In The Rock: Still on the Journey (Anchor Books, 1993); "We'll Understand It
Better By and By" : Pioneering African American Gospel Composers (Smithsonian
Press, 1992); and the landmark documentary anthology Voices of the Civil Rights
Movement: Black American Freedom Songs 1960-1965, a three-record collection with
accompanying booklet which she produced for the Smithsonian Collection of Classic
Recordings. She currently resides in Washington, D.C.
Marvette Pérez: How did your career as a historian, and as a
museum professional start?
Bernice Johnson Reagon:
I was at the Smithsonian for twenty years, and I'm still at the Smithsonian as a curator
emeritus, and I still plan to figure out what that means for me at this point in my life.
That question has multiple angles. I did not follow the ordinary path to be a scholar in a
museum, or even an academic. But there was a trajectory I was on as an African American
child in the community in which I was raised. I can remember my mother saying, "If
you will go to college, you will go." Which meant money was not going to be an issue.
I never knew how she figured she was going to do it with eight children, but she was
determined. And so we all sort of knew in my family that we could go to college. At that
point in our minds, going to college meant finishing undergraduate school and getting a
job as a teacher. We saw our teachers, once they earned their undergraduate degrees and
got their teaching jobs, going back to school every summer until they got their master's.
So almost all of the teachers, of any seniority, say over ten years, had master's degrees.
So one of the things that happened with integration in the South is they found that the black teachers were much more educated than the white teachers. And that was the way it
went. Now, there was also a slim possibility that if something happened, you might become
a lawyer or a doctor or something. But there was nothing to lay that path open. So, even
if you had potential, you couldn't quite see it. I think the Civil Rights
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