Eileen Southern (1920–2002) is one of the most influential figures in Black music scholarship. This roundtable discussion, featuring professors from across the entire University of Michigan, aims to introduce faculty and students to Southern’s work and discuss its importance for contemporary music studies.
Southern was the first Black scholar to earn a PhD in musicology in the United States, founded the first academic journal dedicated to Black music, The Black Perspective in Music, in 1973, was the first Black scholar to publish in The Journal of the American Musicological Society (in 1968), and the first Black women to be awarded tenure at Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences (in 1976). Southern’s The Music of Black Americans: A History (Norton), first published in 1971, has appeared in three editions and was one of the first histories of Black music to cast such an expansive view, encompassing music from Africa, American slavery, minstrelsy, Black church music, ragtime, blues, jazz, opera, art music, rock ‘n’ roll, disco, and hip-hop, among others. This book represents an important early intervention in music studies that otherwise ignored the rich history of Black music and the struggles of Black musicians in the face of white supremacy.
This event commemorates Southern and her work, highlights a longer history of Black people writing about Black culture, and promotes Southern’s work as important for teaching and learning today. By better understanding the history of Black music “from its origin in Africa through its manifestations in colonial America and then in the United States, up to the present time,” as well as scholars like Southern who have engaged with these efforts for many years, we can work toward a more just and equitable future.