February 09, 2011

Bernice Johnson Reagon
Bernice Johnson Reagon

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By Julia Ferrante

LEWISBURG, Pa. — Acclaimed singer, teacher, author and social activist Bernice Johnson Reagon, a founder of the a cappella ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock and "songtalker" who has championed the power of music in the quest for civil rights, will speak Tuesday, March 1, at Bucknell University.

Her presentation, "Standing on New Ground" will start at 7:30 p.m. in Trout Auditorium and is free and open to the public.
Reagon, an original member of the SNCC Freedom Singers, will visit the University as part of the Bucknell Forum series, "Creativity: Beyond the Box." The national speakers series features individuals from a wide range of fields who can provide thoughtful and insightful commentary or interactive experiences on new ways of being creative.

"Bernice Johnson Reagon exemplifies the power of creativity through voice and song, which she has used as the tools in her work for civil rights and equality," said Carmen Gillespie, professor of English and a member of the Bucknell Forum Task Force. "We are looking forward to what we know will be a unique form of presentation as she explores how to share ideas and change minds creatively."  

For more than 45 years, Reagon has advocated for freedom and justice through her singing, teaching and speaking out against racism and inequities. She coined the term "songtalker" to describe the art of "balancing song and talk in the creation of live performance conversation," according to her website. In 1978, she formed the music company Songtalk Publishing Co., which features performances incorporating song, poetry and talk.
Born in Dougherty County near Albany, Ga., the third child of the Rev. Jesse and Beatrice Johnson, Reagon was deeply moved and challenged by the growing struggle against racism in the South and became a student leader of the Albany Movement. While a student at Albany State College, she was expelled from that institution after co-leading the first mass demonstration and later being jailed.

After the birth of her two children, she completed her undergraduate work at Spelman College in Atlanta and her graduate work in history at Howard University. In 1973, Reagon founded the Grammy Award-winning Sweet Honey In The Rock. She led the internationally renowned  a cappella African-American women's ensemble for 30 years, composing many of its songs and producing several of its recordings.
Scholar and producer
Curator emeritus at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History and professor emeritus of history at American University, her work as a scholar and teacher has had a profound impact on the field of public history. Among her major achievements, she was principal scholar, conceptual producer and host for the Peabody Award-winning, "Wade in the Water," a 26-show series produced by National Public Radio and the Smithsonian Institution in 1984. 

Reagon also was the score composer for the Peabody Award-winning film series produced by WGBH-TV, "Africans in America," broadcast in a PBS documentary film series in 1998; music consultant, composer and performer for several other film and video projects, including the award-winning "Eyes on the Prize," the Emmy-winning "We Shall Overcome," and the feature film "Beloved."

In 2003, she created the music and libretto for the Robert Wilson production "The Temptation of St. Anthony," which premiered in Germany and has also been performed in Italy, Spain, England, New York and Australia. With her daughter and collaborator Toshi Reagon and jazz pianist and composer Jeri Allen, Reagon composed the score for the HBO Peabody Award-winning film, "Beah: A Black Woman Speaks," produced by Jonathan Demme and Lisa Gay Hamilton.
Her awards include the Heinz Award for the Arts and Humanities in 2003, the Leeway National Award for Women in the Arts in 2000, the Presidential Medal for Contribution to Public Understanding of the Humanities in 1995, and the MacArthur Fellowship in 1989.

Book, CD signing
Reagon's books and CDs will be available before and after the presentation. A book signing will take place after the talk. 
The Bucknell Forum
Since 2007, the Bucknell Forum speaker series has featured nationally renowned leaders, scholars and commentators who have examined various issues from multi-disciplinary perspectives and a diversity of viewpoints.
The "Creativity: Beyond the Box" series task force comprises faculty members Carmen Gillespie, Beth Capaldi Evans, Paula Davis, Joe Tranquillo, Margot Vigeant and Zhiqun Zhu; students Michael Davis, Class of '13, and Lindsay Machen, Class of '11; and administrators Rob Springall and Pete Mackey, chair.

Contact: Division of Communications