“We become who we are through our songs and our stories, as much as through our kin, our communities and our countries. So sing out! And let our songs ring of justice and guide our feet into the ways of peace.”
Since she was a young girl in Philadelphia, Kim Richards Harris has been “sing[ing] out for justice”. Lucille, Kim’s mother, dreamed that she would have two daughters who would sing and play instruments. Her dream came true. From an early age, Kim and her sister performed as soloists and with groups, encouraging people to sing together in their churches and schools.
Kim loved school. She was not only a dedicated student, but an active participant in plays, choirs, and orchestras. She picked up the drums so that she could get into a marching band. At age nine, Kim began attending a summer camp that resonated with folk music; the camp attracted people like Kim who played the guitar and sang. Later, she became a counselor at the camp and, after graduating from high school, met Reggie Harris there. The two of them performed together for the first time at the camp’s closing campfire.
Kim and Reggie both attended Temple University in Philadelphia, where they entertained crowds by singing folk songs. They started writing their own songs and covering folk and pop songs that were playing on the radio. In 1976, they married, and in 1980, began traveling to sing at college coffeehouses around the country. It wasn´t easy; often they encountered racism on the folk circuit, reminding Kim of the racism she experienced as a child.
When she was in the third grade, Kim was chosen to integrate an all-white school a few miles from her home. Before she entered this school, her parents attended a number of emotionally-charged meetings with white parents, some of whom said that black children would “mess up the school.” Fortunately, Kim says, her entrance into the school “did not involve screaming parents the way Civil Rights pioneers such as young Ruby Bridges in New Orleans did.”
As they traveled the country in the early 1980s, Kim and Reggie began to develop educationally-oriented programs using songs such as ‘Wade in the Water’, ‘Let Us Break Bread Together on Our Knees,’ and ‘Steal Away’ from the Underground Railroad and Civil Rights movements. By the late 1980s, many schools included African American history in their curricula. At the same time, elementary schools, high schools and colleges, church groups, and performing arts centers such as the Kennedy Center became interested in Kim’s and Reggie’s work. With success, the couple went deeper into the music, realizing that the songs that had sung in church had been integral to freedom movements from the 1860s to the 1960s.
Kim and Reggie continue to present the traditional music and stories teach the legacy of race and racism in this country and inspire people to have the spirit, courage and decency to rise above it and heal. Kim believes, “The stories [of those who have changed history] we hear and tell help us to know who we are… and to find our way in the world.” But, she says, we must make sure we present these people not solely as heroes, but as ordinary people who have done extraordinary things so that they are not regarded “so far above all of us ‘lowly’ people, that we stop thinking of ourselves as capable of doing great things.”
Kim is particularly interested in helping pass along the African American traditions of freedom singing that have sustained people through difficulty and oppression. If she does that, she says, “Then I’ll know that I’ve done some good work…and it will be for the next generations to pass on the traditions as they see fit.”
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