Music has always been a means of salvation. This can be seen in a recently completed project, “From Slavery to Freedom in St. Mary’s City: Engaging History to Strengthen Democracy with Jazz”. Created by Professor of Philosophy Sybol Anderson and Professor of English Jeff Coleman, this project served to promote the intersectionality between democracy, creative expression, and slavery in southern Maryland. The project was supported by the Maryland Humanities Council, and engaged community members of all ages and backgrounds in historical, cultural, and philosophical reflection on the meaning of slavery in St. Mary’s City and beyond. Participants explored how African-Americans liberated themselves from oppression by “improvising” methods of “physical” escape from slavery and of spiritual escape in jazz; and how through engaging this history, one can liberate themselves for an inclusive democracy. The multi-disciplinary project intentionally varied both it’s engagement medium (symposiums, lectures, and workshops) and it’s content (archaeological finds, jazz concerts, and spoken-word performances).
Program events included a symposium held on September 23rd, 2017 at which St. Mary’s College of Maryland (SMCM) faculty, students, and visiting scholars shared with the general public information about the discovery of archaeological evidence that St. Mary’s Female Seminary owned slaves in the 19th century. Discussions highlighted narratives about those enslaved people and slavery in Maryland. For democracy to flourish, the truth about slavery in Maryland has to be uncovered and recognized, allowing for healing, inspiration, and understanding.
Workshops entitled “Improvisation, Self-Emancipation, and Democratic Participation,” were held in October and November 2017. Through historical study, philosophical reflection, and improvisational activities, participants explored the themes of improvisation, innovation, and freedom linking jazz and democracy. They learned how jazz stimulates free thought and expression and how to employ jazz concepts in daily life to nurture democratic listening and practice.
Along with the symposium and workshops was a lecture and performance titled “The Spirit of Jazz and Democracy.” The opening lecture was part of the aforementioned symposium that illuminated jazz as the embodiment of democracy and traced it from slavery to innovations by Maryland jazz artists such as Billie Holiday to its use by the US government to promote ideas of American democracy globally. The closing lecture and performance on December 8th, 2017, featured workshop participants’ reflections on the connections between jazz and democracy.
Exploring the local African-American narrative and its connection to liberation and democracy through jazz was a profound research approach. This project was able to unite scholars from varied disciplines, as well as students and local SMCM community members, thus succeeding in the goal of bring SMCM closer together, engaging with the past for a better, more democratic, future.
This project was made possible by a grant from Maryland Humanities, through support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities or Maryland Humanities.