At 7 p.m. on January 23, two days after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, students and guests seated themselves quietly in the pews of the University Chapel for a commemoration concert. To a student population widely recognized for its homogeneity, the concert taking place that evening was important as a celebration of diversity and strong will. The Chapel rows were accordingly full, but maroon and white were only sparsely represented. Instead, most of the audience members were from in or out of town, ranging from adult to middle school age including the winners of an essay-writing contest about racism. The concert’s official theme was arts and activism but it may have taken on a second one as well.
After a short a cappella introduction by two Colgate students who summoned, “Let us march on til the fight is won,” the event opened with words from the Director of the Office of Undergraduate Studies Jaime Nolan and Dean Charlotte Johnson. Their short introductions were also calls to action. Nolan quoted Marian Anderson, the first black woman allowed to join the New York Opera, who warned against hesitation at the opportunity to do “what is right.” Johnson, before introducing the main act, a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock, also gave a warning.
“You do a huge disservice to yourself and to the community if you continue to exist in those groups in which you are comfortable,” Johnson said.
The words of the two women were insightful and motivating, but here they also took on the air of preaching to the choir in regard to Colgate students, for it seemed those who most needed inspiration were absent.
Then on to Sweet Honey in the Rock. The ensemble, first formed in 1973, was composed of six African American women, five of whom were singers while one performed using sign language. On this night they were dressed in similar metallic copper colored tunics and seated in a semi-circle on the Chapel stage.
The concert began with a single sound from the top of the circle. It was the low, smooth voice of the only gray-haired and shaved-headed woman in the group. Soon the rest joined in, and each separate voice flowed smoothly between every other as the group unfolded socially relevant narratives about education, morality, and the environment. Their music had the sad, slow power of a spiritual.
“Do unto others what you’d have them do to you,” they sang in the first song.
The next song was more upbeat, and the group stood up, beckoning the audience to clap in time to the music. It responded with brief, timid beats, but the energy in the Chapel increased through a third song, which ended in a long, impassioned and vibrato-less call. Intermission began with an uplifted and slightly embarrassed solo from the audience.
“Let there be peace,” they continued softly after the professionals had stopped singing and wafted downstairs.
Audience reactions to the music were very emphatic.
“I love it,” said first year Lauren Graves.
Yet students were not the only ones to appreciate the concert, as evidenced by the full Chapel pews.
“I’m glad to see people support the views I’ve adopted,” said Hamilton Central junior Conor Nolan.
In fact, those students who did attend were quick to point out the glaring absence of Colgate University students. Senior Ayanna Williams pointed out how well the concert would have benefited them.
“I love the cultural aspect of it,” Williams said. “We don’t get lots of that.”
After the music ended, Sweet Honey in the Rock accepted questions from the audience. Some were from old fans of the groups, but the last comment was from a student who asked if there were any themes that college students in particular should take away from the concert. Even during this exchange the singers’ voices were a harmony when they overlapped until the voice that had signaled the concert’s start also ended it, saying “the issues are the issues.”
Whether or not they recognized Sweet Honey in the Rock as internationally renowned, those in the choir who sang, “Let there be peace,” identified with the themes of celebrating diversity, valuing education, and demonstrating the courage to uphold one’s values. It is upon their shoulders to spread the knowledge to those who may not have recognized a rare opportunity to celebrate these values at Colgate University.