AT HEART, BERNICE JOHNSON REAGON is a revolutionary. “I don’t accept the world the way it works,” she says. “I take on the world. I want to make the world the way it should be.”
In fact, Reagon, 52, has spent most of her life trying to stand the planet on its obstinate head. Her vision is a world without racism, sexism or political oppression. Her medium for achieving it is an eclectic repertoire of gospel, jazz, folk and rhythm-and-blues music whipped together by Reagon and four other unaccompanied singers, who for two decades have been performing under the name Sweet Honey in the Rock. Song, however, is only one way Reagon spreads the word. She is also a U.S. history professor at American University in Washington, D.C., a curator emeritus at the Smithsonian Institution, where she has worked for 23 years, and, most recently, a radio producer. Her 26-part series on black sacred music is currently airing on National Public Radio. “At the Smithsonian we have three treasures,” says James Weaver, a fellow curator. “Thomas Jefferson’s desk, a Stradivarius cello and Bernice Reagon.”
“People where I grew up had to have more than one thing going to survive,” says Reagon, referring to her frenetic schedule. Her mother, Beatrice, raised eight children (of whom Bernice was the third), worked as a housekeeper in the family’s hometown of Albany, Ga., and toiled in the cotton fields on her days off. Reagon’s father, the Rev. Jessie Johnson, was a carpenter who served as a pastor on Sundays at four different Baptist churches. It was in those churches, on the piney back roads of rural Georgia, that Reagon began to sing. “The first music I heard was in church,” says Reagon. “The sound I make is southwest Georgia. The harmonies are southwest Georgia. The sound I hear in my head as a composer is southwest Georgia.”
Reagon enrolled at all-black Albany-State College in 1960 intending to study music. Instead she got caught up in the civil rights movement. In 1962 she was expelled from school and later jailed for two weeks for taking part in demonstrations. To pass the time behind bars, Reagon and her colleagues sang. “The civil rights movement is where I found song as a language,” she says.
It is also where she found a husband, Cordell Hull Reagon, a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee who had been sent to Albany to organize a voter registration drive. “He was a tenor and handsome,” says Reagon. Along with civil rights workers Rutha Mae Harris and Charles Neblett, the couple formed the SNCC Freedom Singers and traveled around the country in a Buick station wagon raising money for the movement.
Reagon left the Freedom Singers in 1964 to give college another try, this time at Spelman College in Atlanta. In 1967, after four years of marriage and two children (daughter Toshi is now 30 and son Kwan Tauna, 29), Bernice and Cordell divorced. Four years later, Reagon and her children moved to Washington, where she enrolled in a doctoral program in history at Howard University and began working at the Smithsonian. Her work at both has emphasized oral history. “The oral process should be allowed right along with the written process,” says Reagon.
Sweet Honey in the Rock—the name is the title of the first spiritual the group learned—was formed in 1973 after Reagon was hired as a vocal director by the D.C. Black Repertory Company. “When I founded the group, I didn’t know if there would be an audience,” says Reagon. Twelve albums, a Grammy and countless concerts later, her doubts have been erased—despite Reagon’s unwillingness simply to please. “Song for her is text and meaning,” says friend and Smithsonian colleague James Early. “It is not entertainment.”
A Sweet Honey performance is more like a revival meeting than a concert. The house lights are left on and the audience is drawn irresistibly into the dramatic crescendo of the. program. Dressed in colorful African garb and hoisting shakeres, rainsticks and other ancient percussion instruments, Reagon and her songmates (Ysaye Maria Barnwell, Nitanju Bolade Casel, Aisha Kahlil and Carol Maillard) chant, yodel, rap, hum and harmonize their way through a collection of songs that defies categorization. “The power of that many singers, singing at once, a cappella, is undeniable,” said Bonnie Raitt, who has performed on the same bill.
Despite her full schedule of performing and teaching, Reagon shows no sign of slowing down. She is now putting together an exhibit of music and artifacts based on her NPR series Wade in the Water, which will open at the Smithsonian in early 1996. The title has special meaning for Reagon. “To me [the song] ‘Wade in the Water’ meant, go ahead because God’s going to control the water,” says Reagon. “It meant, don’t avoid trouble. If you see trouble, go through trouble. The song came as a lesson, a guide. It became my theme.”
MARY H.J. FARRELL
ROCHELLE JONES in Washington