This article appeared in the Standard-Times of New Bedford, Massachusetts, on 2/16/05,
Page A1, main news/cover; Copyright 2005 by Beth David

Professor brings passion to the past

Standard-Times correspondent

DARTMOUTH -- Dr. Edward Rhymes is a big man with a big voice and a big message. And he's taking that message to area high schools during Black History Month.

"I'm just working toward the day when it's not African-American history anymore," Dr. Rhymes said after a presentation at Dartmouth High School yesterday. "It's just American history."

The 90-minute program, "African-American History Through Music," traces the emergence of different kinds of music created by blacks and links it to the events of the time period.

Dr. Rhymes, a professor at UMass Dartmouth and assistant director of the Frederick Douglass Unity House, has a booming voice and a presentation style that demands participation from his audience. He starts by asking them what black history has to do with them.

He illustrates that history in the United States is one history by pointing out that the traffic signal and the clock were both invented by blacks.

"Last time I checked, not only black folks use the clock. Last time I checked, not only black folks stop at traffic lights. That's what it has to do with you," said Dr. Rhymes. "This is your history, no matter what color you woke up in this morning."

Dr. Rhymes walked the audience through the horror of being snatched out of the African jungle to land on the shores of America's South. And that led to the creation of music called the "spirituals."

A form of worship, spiritual music also contained hidden messages. According to Dr. Rhymes, slaves took the words from white Christian churches and used them to create hidden messages.

"Lay my burden by the riverside" meant meet me by the river to run away. "Pharaoh" was the slave master, "Egypt" was the South, "Hell" was the Deep South, and "Moses" was the conductor of the Underground Railroad. After a few moments of demonstrating the music, he stated, "You think I'm talking about the Bible right now."

He laughs and it is contagious, even to a room full of teenagers. Saying that slavery is the tool of racism, not racism itself, Dr. Rhymes said slavery would not have been possible without a culture that allowed itself some incongruous beliefs, such as that slaves were lazy and the "people on the porch sipping tea" were not.

Then the Jim Crow era arrived. After the great expectation of slavery being abolished, the letdown led to the creation of blues.

"You could not have a great disappointment if you didn't have great expectations. It's like running downstairs and there are no presents under the Christmas tree," said Dr. Rhymes. "From this great disappointment came the blues. Out of that disappointment came some of the most creative music ever devised in this country."

The jazz of the 1920s came out of a "marriage" of sophisticated music and street music. Gospel came from the soul-searching after the Great Depression.

Then rhythm & blues, the age of soul, then rock 'n' roll, then rap. With the emergence of each kind of music, Dr. Rhymes intertwined the events of the time period, making connections with the civil rights movement. In the 1960s, the music became more "aggressive, bold, confrontational."

Blacks stopped asking for rights and started demanding them. This was during the time of Rosa Parks and the bus boycott. In the end he told the students they were "the answer to the prayers of your ancestors."

"It's an awesome privilege, but also a great responsibility," said Dr. Rhymes. "What are you going to do with it?"

This story appeared on Page A1 of The Standard-Times on February 16, 2005.