Making a Difference: Eileen Jackson Southern-Pioneering in Black Music

By Webber, Rebecca | Humanities, May/June 2002 | Go to article overview

Making a Difference: Eileen Jackson Southern-Pioneering in Black Music


Webber, Rebecca, Humanities


Before Eileen Jackson Southern began her work, black music was not considered a serious academic discipline. Students could not formally study it and major music journals published very little research about it. Today, both the American Musicological Society and the Society for American Music recognize African American music as worthy of scholarly study.

"I think she single-handedly did it," says Josephine Wright. Wright is Southern's longtime friend and colleague, and a professor of music and black studies at Wooster College in Ohio. "She challenged the musicological community in the U.S. to look seriously at itself and the racism that existed there. And she showed that the writing, the research, and the scholarship of black music could be held to the same standard as any other academic field."

Her landmark publications include Readings in Black American Music and African American Traditions in Song, Sermon, Tale and Dance 1600s-1920. Her 1971 publication, The Music of Black Americans: A History, was designated by the American Record Guide as "the first serious, scholarly effort to document the entire history of black music in the United States."

In 1973, she founded the quarterly journal, Black Perspectives in Music, which she edited until 1991. The journal provided an opportunity for scholars to publish in the field and elevated the discipline in the eyes of the academy. For many of Southern's colleagues, who needed to publish in order to earn tenure, the journal was a lifeline.

Southern assisted colleagues who were trying to gain legitimacy in the academic mainstream. "She was my lifelong mentor," says Wright. "She taught me a great deal about scholarship, about the academy and how it worked, at a time when women and minorities were few and far between.

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