Braggs opens Faculty Lecture Series with discussion of black diaspora in music

On Thursday, the College kicked off its annual Faculty Lecture Series with a talk from Associate Professor of Africana Studies Rashida Braggs in Wege Auditorium. The Faculty Lecture Series was founded in 1911 by Catherine Mariotti Pratt, wife of Professor of Philosophy James Bissett Pratt. Professor of Music W. Anthony Sheppard is this year’s Faculty Lecture Series chair. While the lecturers are different every year, Sheppard said that the goals of the Series have remained constant throughout time.

“The Series showcases faculty scholarship and creative work, offering the College and broader community an opportunity to learn about our work outside of the classroom,” he said. “We aim to select two faculty from each academic division, representing the great diversity of topics and scholarly approaches pursued at Williams.”

Braggs’ lecture, entitled “Diasporic Research through Embodied Performance,” focused on the migration of African American musicians in the mid-20th century and, specifically, on the legacy of jazz musician and composer Sidney Bechet.

Attendees walked into the auditorium to the sound of one of Bechet’s most famous works, “Summertime.” Braggs discussed the rich musical tradition of African Americans abroad in reference to her recent book, Jazz Diasporas: Race, Music and Migration in Post-World War II Paris.

“With this book, I really wanted to look at the migration of African American musicians as they migrated to Paris, mostly in the 1940s – at the end of World War II – until the beginning of the 1960s,” Braggs said. “I wanted to see what kind of survival strategies they had, what kind of collaborations they had. I wanted to ask questions about the ways that jazz music culturally performed. Did it change? Did it morph in terms of its national identity?”

Braggs focused on Bechet’s place in jazz history as one of these performers. “Sydney Bechet was one of the most influential solo improvisers in jazz history,” she said. “In Jazz Diasporas, I argue that Sydney Bechet manipulated and negotiated his Creole, French, American and African descendant subjectivities to more successfully assimilate and rise to fame in his new diasporic home of mid-century France.”

In order to further understand the work of Bechet, Braggs transformed into the musician in her short one-woman formance, “Me and Monsieur Bechet,” of which she showed the audience clips. This fall, she used the piece as a performative text for her course “Black Migrations: African American Performance at Home and Abroad.”

“I attempt to test black performance theory with my body by playing diaspora,” Braggs said. “Could I wear Sydney Bechet’s memory of diaspora on my skin, in my gait, in my regard, in my voice? I attempted.”

Braggs showed a series of clips from her performance, which combined acting, movement, dance and music. One clip involved Braggs approaching a mirror, sinking to the floor and then rhythmically slapping and sliding on her back across the floor and through the legs of a piano bench, under which was the hat that would complete her transformation into Bechet.

“This slap-slide through the diaspora reflected the labors of the middle passage, the still resonant imagined memory of that labor, the pain and discomfort of diasporic migration and the determined force it took to move away from home and toward an uncertain future,” Braggs said.

Braggs showed another clip of her performance in which she mimed playing the clarinet and sang the melody to Bechet’s “Summertime,” incorporating what she described as a “kinesthetic stuttering” between words by inserting different sounds she had picked out online into the tune with her voice.

“I was trying to get at that double-edged quality of the music,” Braggs said. “I still want to explore that more. I want to show more of a balance between the joy and the pain.”

Braggs linked her piece to theories of how diaspora is played in performance, quoting from her students’ reactions to it. These theories improved her understanding of performing diaspora, she explained.

“Creating a performance and trying to articulate Bechet’s diasporic experience allowed me to get past what was documented, to jump right into it rather than continuing to struggle with traditional methods of interpretation,” Braggs said. “It also blurred the lines between problematic and productive methodologies.”

To conclude, Braggs described her attempt to translate this interpretation to the students in her class and discussed what she learned from her students’ comments.

“The students taught me about the limits of intention and agency. That is, I had one sense in my mind about what I was trying to do, what I was focusing on … and the students sometimes came up with different interpretations,” Braggs said. “Their comments distinguished learned, remembered and imagined experiences with African diaspora, of which I was not even aware.”