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Reagon, Bernice Johnson (1942–) - History of African Americans, Cultural Worker, Curator

honey sweet black rock

Bernice Johnson Reagon, perhaps best known for her work with the performance group Sweet Honey in the Rock, is also a historian, writer, curator emeritus, and civil rights activist. Born on October 4, 1942, outside of Albany, Georgia, of African-American heritage, Reagon is the daughter of the Reverend Jessie Johnson and Beatrice Wise Johnson. At an early age Bernice’s church singing brought her attention, and she credits her father for her singing style. In fact, the a cappella style Sweet Honey in the Rock is so famous for originated in the Baptist Church Reagon attended in Albany, Georgia. “Like most of the rural churches in the region,” she later remembered, “we did all of our singing unaccompanied except for our hands and our feet; to this day I am an a cappella singer.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon attended Blue Springs Elementary School and then was among the first generation of black children in her region to be bused to the county secondary schools. She entered Albany State College in 1959 as a music major. While in college she became interested in the civil rights movement, eventually holding the position of secretary of the local National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) Youth Chapter. During her junior year of college, Reagon participated in a Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) march and was subsequently suspended from school and then arrested. In jail she again learned the power of song, as the forty to fifty incarcerated women sang together to unite in their struggle.

Reagon was the highest-ranking student at Albany State College, but she left there to attend Spelman College as a non-Western history major. She left school again, however, to join the Freedom Singers of SNCC. This group traveled around the country to raise money for the civil rights movement. During this time she wrote her most militant songs, favoring African-American separatism rather than integration into white society. She completed her degree at Spelman in 1970, then took a position in Washington, D.C., as vocal director at the District of Columbia Black Repertory Theater. While there, Reagon organized Sweet Honey in the Rock and began to study for the Ph.D. in history at Howard University. By 1975 she had completed her dissertation, which focused on songs of the civil rights movement. In the field of history, states biographer Ondine Le Blanc, Reagon found work “that could sustain her passion for music and for the African American community.”

From 1976 to 1988 Reagon worked as cultural historian and director of the Program in Black American Culture at the Smithsonian Institution. From 1988 to 1993 she served as a curator in the Division of Community Life, and since 1994 she has been curator emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution. Currently Distinguished Professor of History at American University, Reagon continues to contribute to the collection and dissemination of information about the cultural practices, past and present, of African Americans. Douglas Barasch put it well when he wrote, in a New York Times article, “Her work, her music and her life have been devoted to the preservation of black oral culture.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon has been the recipient of many awards, including a MacArthur Foundation “Genius” fellowship. Among her many contributions to the field is her decade-long project, “Wade in the Water,” a series of National Public Radio broadcasts celebrating African-American sacred music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

Sweet Honey in the Rock, of which Reagon is founder and artistic director, regularly performs a cappella music from the African diaspora at churches, concerts, and festivals. Sweet Honey’s political and spiritual messages resound with audiences in the United States and on group tours in Africa, Asia, and Australia. Their name, which comes from a gospel song, is based on a parable about a land so rich that its rocks, when cracked, poured out honey. “And over the years,” states Reagon, “I have come to believe that black women are like that land. The properties of honey and rock represent the complexities of sweetness and strength that we struggle to offer up in our lives.”

Bernice Johnson Reagon was married to Cordell Reagon from 1963 until 1967, when they divorced, and is the mother of two children, Toshi and Kwan.

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