Past Event

Colloquium" Clifton Boyd (NYU) "Listening for Unsung Heroes: Black Life during Barbershop's Segregated Era, 1938–1963"

April 14, 2023
3:00 PM - 4:00 PM
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Friday, April 14th at 3pm in Dodge 622


Talk Title: Listening for Unsung Heroes: Black Life during Barbershop's Segregated Era, 1938–1963

Abstract: In this talk, I will trace the history of racial segregation in the Barbershop Harmony Society (BHS) from its founding in 1938 to its reluctant integration in 1963. At the heart of this project is a rich archive of letters and administrative documents that illustrate with remarkable candidness white barbershoppers' disdain for Black Americans and their commitment to combating the anti-segregationist politics of the civil rights movement. This aversion to singing and fraternizing with Black Americans is particularly ironic given their essential role in developing barbershop harmony at the turn of the twentieth century. Yet, the voices of several Black barbershoppers echo faintly within the archive, the moments of their exclusion marked but their musical and social lives otherwise absent. How might the history of racial segregation be retold from the perspective of those who were subjected to this anti-Blackness and disrupted the Society's exclusionary status quo? By supplementing the BHS's print archive with oral history interviews conducted with living descendants of the Black barbershoppers, I aim to bring these musicians' voices and experiences to the fore and to highlight their agency as actors in this history of institutional reform. This work redresses the historiographical harm done by white barbershoppers who purposefully buried the BHS's history of anti-Blackness and of Black barbershoppers, and lays much of the historical groundwork for my book project on how anti-Blackness and racial politics shaped the music-theoretical discourse of the barbershop community.

Speaker Bio: Clifton Boyd is Visiting Assistant Professor of Music at New York University, where he will transition into his role as Assistant Professor in 2024. His research explores themes of (racial) identity, politics, and social justice in American popular music. His current book project, Keep It Barbershop: Stylistic Preservation and Whiteness in the Barbershop Harmony Society, demonstrates how nostalgia-fueled efforts toward musical and cultural preservation can perpetuate racial injustice. Combining critical race studies and music theory, this work furnishes new understandings of whiteness, barbershop as a racialized musical practice, and vernacular music theory. His essays and articles appear or are forthcoming in Music Theory and AnalysisMusic Theory SpectrumTheory and Practice, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as the edited collections The Oxford Handbook for Public Music Theory and Being #BlackintheIvory: Contending with Racism in the American University. His research has been supported by fellowships from the American Musicological Society, the Society for American Music, and the American Council of Learned Societies. Boyd is also active in anti-racism and social-justice efforts in music studies: in 2017, he founded Project Spectrum, a graduate student–led coalition committed to increasing diversity, equity, and inclusion in music academia.