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Vassar Celebrates Black HistoryMiss Black America Performance Inspired by Northern Migration

The migration of millions of African American families from the Deep South to northern cities in the first half of the 20th century is one of the most significant, and largely untold, stories of American history. On Saturday, February 16, harpist and Adjunct Artist in Music Ashley Jackson will relate some of this story, through music and the spoken word, in the performance Miss Black America.

Harpist and Adjunct Artist in Music Ashley JacksonPhoto: Courtesy of Ashley Jackson, by Alex Joseph

Jackson will collaborate with baritone Malcolm J. Merriweather, Director of Choral Studies and Voice Department Coordinator at Brooklyn College of the City University of New York. The concert, which is free and open to the public, will start at 8:00 pm in Skinner Hall.

Jackson says she began to conceive of the performance after reading The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson. “The book was recommended to me by an older black woman,” she says. “It got me thinking of my own grandparents, who migrated from the South themselves. And I had the idea to use music to marry my connections to the past through my grandmother, my mother, and my two sisters—generations of courageous black women. After reading the book, I realized there are millions of stories similar to my own.” She said the name of the concert was inspired by a song of the same name, written and performed by one of her favorite musicians, Curtis Mayfield.

Jackson, a harpist, wrote her Doctor of Musical Arts dissertation on the life and music of Margaret Allison Bonds (1913–1972), one of the first black composers and performers to gain wide recognition in the United States. Bonds is widely known for her frequent collaborations with poet Langston Hughes, and Jackson will use some of those pieces in the concert. “A common theme in Hughes’s poetry is identity and understanding blackness in the United States throughout history,” Jackson says. “I’ll conclude the performance with some narration that asks us to think about what this means to us going forward.”

Jackson says she wants concert-goers to consider the bravery of black women of the past as models for subsequent generations. “My hope is that it will encourage today’s students to think about the strength of their own families,” she says. “It’s important for all of us as artists to be thinking beyond just the music and to ask how it connects to others. To be an artist is to be an activist.”