Carolyn Wilkins pays tribute to her musical mentors at Vassar

Lilly and Alberta, Kansas, 1908, in They Raised Me Up by Carolyn Wilkins

Lilly and Alberta, Kansas, 1908, in They Raised Me Up by Carolyn Wilkins

It’s good to have role models. And it’s good to pay tribute to them, once you’ve reached a level of mastery that reflects well on their contributions to you. In her memoir They Raised Me Up, Carolyn Wilkins does just that. With dignified prose, she honors the women in her family’s history, women who came before and who surmounted their own challenging life conditions to realize their own dreams.

A successful jazz musician and scholar, Wilkins is a professor at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. She has toured South America as jazz ambassador for the US State Department, performed on radio and television with her group SpiritJazz and worked as a percussionist for the Pittsburgh and Singapore Symphonies. She has recorded several critically acclaimed CDs of original compositions and is the author of Tips for Singers: Performing, Auditioning and Rehearsing and Damn Near White: An African American Family’s Rise from Slavery to Bittersweet Success. Wilkins will read from her new book at the Vassar Alumnae House at 161 College Avenue in Poughkeepsie on Monday, April 21 at 5 p.m. The event is free and open to the public.

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Wilkins left an unhappy marriage in Tacoma in the 1980s and moved with her preschool-aged daughter to a working-class town outside of Boston, where she hoped to make her way in the music business as a jazz pianist. Surviving in a man’s world while raising a child on her own pushed her right up against the inequities that African American women face in every field. She had already been rejected from a pursuit in classical music, because black females were not welcome in that realm at the time. In the jazz world of clubs and bars, she encountered sexual predation – enough to make her wonder if her choice had been a wise one. But there were bills to pay and babysitters to retain. So, in spite of almost-crippling stage fright, she forced herself to sit down with jazzmen and play.

Wilkins credits her ancestors and mentors with her success. As her role models, Wilkins counts five musically gifted women who struggled to achieve their passions at the turn of the 20th century: Philippa Schuyler, whose efforts to pass for white inspired Carolyn to embrace her own black identity despite her “damn near white” appearance; Marjory Jackson, the musician and single mother whose dark complexion and flamboyant lifestyle raised eyebrows among her contemporaries in the snobby, color-conscious world of the African American elite; Lilly Pruett, the daughter of an illiterate sharecropper whose stunning beauty might have been her only ticket out of the South; Ruth Lipscomb, the country girl who dreamed of becoming a concert pianist and realized her improbable ambition in 1941; and Wilkins’ grandmother, Alberta Sweeney, who survived personal tragedy by relying on the musical talent and spiritual stamina that she had acquired growing up in a Kansas mining town.

Her story interweaves memories of those first difficult years in Boston with tales of these five women. She references some of the historical situations in which they found themselves, like her grandmother and great-grandmother’s arrival in the Wild West town of Weir, Kansas, where Negroes were being enticed away from Birmingham and all over the South to work the coal mines.

Some of Wilkins’ mentors quietly persevered against the odds. Others were more outspoken, like a great-aunt who worked to register black voters in the 1940s and put African American candidates in office. Some credit her efforts, along with a strong caucus of churchgoing women, for putting Harry Truman in the White House in 1948.

Reflecting the persistent strength of the women themselves, and more famous icons of civil rights too, Wilkins’ memoir presents slices of African American and women’s history with dignity and integrity. They Raised Me Up is an entertaining, informative and engrossing read.

Carolyn Wilkins reads They Raised Me Up, Vassar Alumnae House, 161 College Avenue, Poughkeepsie, Mon., April 21, 5 p.m., free, open to the public, refreshments served. For information, call (845) 437-5870 and to RSVP, e-mail ruspencer@vassar.edu.

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