By Joy Moton
Music has inundated Tammy Kernodle’s life since she was a little girl in the suburbs of Danville, Virginia. Her family never sat in silence. She always woke up to the tune of a radio or a voice. Her house was filled with every kind of music from opera to gospel, jazz to blues and even country music.
It was no surprise that Kernodle would grow up to choose a career in music.
“From my childhood, music was just a very vital part of my identity, so I never dreamed that I could do the things that I do now in terms of teaching at a college level — or even travelling and performing or presenting in the ways that I do now,” Kernodle said.
With her innate love of music, Kernodle aspired to be a concert pianist as an undergraduate student — but faced many obstacles, roadblocks and negativity. As a result, she switched her major to music education and experienced an awakening during her student teaching experience.
Kernodle started to think deeper about what was being taught in the classroom because she worked at a middle school where 98 percent of the student population was black and 98 percent of the teachers were white.
“What I saw was a pattern of behavior that, unfortunately, is still indicative of what happens in many of our public schools where children of color get labeled with behavior problems,” Kernodle said. “Often times, it’s the material that they’re being presented. Often times, they’re not stimulated intellectually. So, I really started to think about how I could bring things into the classroom that related to them and to this music class.”
Kernodle started researching black composers and musicians to integrate more relevant content into her student teaching experience, and it unlocked a new sense of passion in her. She decided that along with teaching, she wanted to tell the stories of black people and compose the teaching materials to do so.
“I want to continue to develop this knowledge of who we are as black people in America — making music, so that hopefully this can lead young people of color into thinking differently about who they are or what we have achieved in this country,” Kernodle said.
Kernodle did not have the luxury of taking a class about black accomplishments in music, even though she went to a historically black institution, but it didn’t matter because she was determined.
“Part of me was angry that I had gone to a historically black college, but had been taught very little about black composers and black people,” Kernodle said. “Part of this was a personal awakening about my own blackness and my own history. I went to graduate school with one goal in mind: to write black people into history, to write them into the classroom.”
Kernodle faced a lot of opposition even in graduate school, but through it learned that she was there to obtain a skill set and facilitate change.
“I had professors tell me no American women or person of color ever contributed anything significant to music,” Kernodle said.
She decided she wasn’t going to argue with her professors because she was going to prove them wrong. Kernodle learned the skills and language she needed in order to write as a scholar, but conducted research on her own. She read as many books as she could in her down time, listened to many CDs, bought materials, talked to other people and went to conferences. Through her studies, she learned that people don’t consider the economic struggles and sexual violence that black women have to navigate and negotiate often.
“What I’ve found in working in black music is that when you look at the progression of our cause for civil rights and social justice in America, a lot of that narrative has been scripted around race. It has not considered the black woman’s plight in America,” Kernodle said. “What I discovered in my own development is that black women’s voices are often silenced, or they’re often made to sing in tandem with the narrative of the men who are directing the movement. There’s this notion that if the black man is free, then by virtue that’s going to trickle down to black women. Looking at even what was written about African American music — what I noticed was that it was always centered around what men were doing and it always portrayed men as the dominant voice.”
Kernodle’s purpose began to expand as she started feeling a natural inclination towards writing about black women who transformed communities through their music. She started looking at black women’s narratives and black women’s ways for creating spaces for themselves.
“It wasn’t just about writing black people into this history, it was about writing black women into this history,” Kernodle said. “It’s not to negate the narrative of men, but what I have found is that for every person that we write about or talk about in these histories, there are ten or fifteen people who were never recorded.”
Although she matured in her academic stature, she never grew out of her love for performance. Now a professor of musicology at Miami University, Kernodle brings this music to universities around the country through an event called “She Sang Freedom.” She and her trio deliver a live performance of various freedom and protest songs to give people a deeper sense of the interpretation of the music she’s dedicated her life to studying. The audience is invited to sing with her to become a part of the performance so that the narrative and the trajectory of the story she tells resonate more.
Kernodle believes that while everyone cannot stand on a stage and perform, everyone is capable of creating change with the power of their voice.
“What I want people to leave with is ‘What is the power of your voice?’ That’s an innate question that I ask in this performance because I want people to leave with a deeper sense of the connection of music and civil rights, but also to ask themselves ‘What can my voice accomplish?’ Whether I can sing or not. What is the power of my voice and how can I direct change?’”