Nancy Dupree
Guy Lochhead, 22/04/12
[From an Eye Ball article I wrote about Dupree] Nancy Lorraine Dupree was a controversial and radical teacher who was ultimately dismissed from the American education system for her unconventional methodology. She was hired as a music teacher at Elementary School No. 4, on the west side of Rochester, New York, shortly after moving to the city from her Southern home of Sumter, South Carolina. She was extremely self-confident and expected teaching the children to be “breezy, uncomplicated and probably very boring”. She found the truth to be very different. The first of the many obstacles she faced was a consequence of the racial discrepancy between teachers and pupils – the staff were predominantly white, and the students were black. She found children unsure of their relationship between themselves and their colour. Race relations within the school may have been perfectly fine, but outside of the classroom things were very different – an allegedly racist arrest of a black man at a block party had sparked three days of race riots throughout the first summer Dupree spent in Rochester. She saw a relationship between the public disaffection and the lack of black role models in the staff and curriculum. She decided to abandon the overwhelmingly-white curriculum and introduce the children to Afrocentric ideas and black history, playing them Odetta, Nina Simone, Roberta Flack, Ella Fitzgerald, Miriam Makeba and Leontyne Price alongside the classical canon of Beethoven, Mozart etc. She invited Muhammad Ali, B.B. King and Roland Kirk to come in and speak to the children. To complement all this exposure, she decided the kids should perform themselves. They formed a choir, but rather than sing Mary Had A Little Lamb etc. they wrote their own songs about their (black) heroes. Dupree guided and encouraged them, and provided musical accompaniment, but never impinged on their creativity. Consequently, the songs provide an unfiltered child’s perspective on these cultural heavyweights, singing about their hair or how they imagine Jesus to look alongside lyrics promoting equality and self-worth, and a tribute to the recently-assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King. By 1969, they had an album’s worth of songs. They took the project outside of the classroom and performed to local audiences, but Dupree wanted more. In the late ’60s, Dupree found herself on a plane with Moses Asch, founder of the Folkways record label. She told him all about her class and convinced him to release a record of them, ‘Ghetto Reality‘, credited to ‘Nancy Dupree with a group of Rochester, N.Y. Youngsters”, released in 1970. The album is still in print on CD and cassette by what is now Smithsonian Folkways. I highly, highly recommend it. It’s unique, raw and from the guts – young, talented, black voices backed by ballet-class solo piano. It’s beautiful. She was fired either later that year or in early 1971 after ruffling the school’s feathers with her beliefs and methodology. Apparently the last straw was that she refused to wear high heels for the 10-hour school day like the other female teachers. The schoolchildren objected and the principal called the police. After her dismissal, she began using poetry as a similar communicative tool. Her writing is characterised by a positive, progressive message and an incorporation of African-American vernacular (both north and south). Her performances came from memory and invited participation. She released a spoken word record, ‘Letter To Young Sisters‘, and performed readings at other Rochester schools. She had two brief marriages, one of which was to a Black Panther. She became involved in the party to some small extent, but never discussed what sympathies she had. She also wrote a play, ‘Ebony Roses’, about women talking at a bus stop. She got leukaemia around 1978 but kept her illness secret until she died on April 23rd 1980, aged 44. Sickhead. I will include Ghetto Reality.

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