This past Sunday, I rolled out of bed and made my way over to one of Tufts’ main dining halls for a quick brunch before a packed day of reviewing material from my classes and spending time with friends. As I strolled around the serving area, I noticed a familiar vocal refrain coming from the overhead speakers: it was Gladys Knight’s 1973 recording of “Midnight Train to Georgia.” I couldn’t help but start humming along to the tune. One of the dining workers noticed and shot me a smile, and the experience set the tone for what ended up being a great day. This is not to say that I would not have had a good day if a different song had been playing in the Dewick Dining Center that morning, but that particular song holds a special cultural and familial significance for me. It reminds me of home and the people who made it possible for me to pursue a degree at Tufts. Most importantly, that song made me feel as if the dining hall that morning was my home.
My “Midnight Train” brunch experience got me thinking about what musical representation looks like at Tufts. How can music, dance, and other forms of creative expression, make someone feel more comfortable in a new or foreign environment? Answering this question requires an understanding that while that one Gladys Knight song made my day, other students may not have even noticed that there was music playing at all that morning; that while my culture was audibly present, and I was corporeally present, neither presence impacted the general population in the same way that it would impact someone with a similar cultural background to mine. More simply put, answering this question demands an understanding of cultural backgrounds and contexts that extend far beyond our own.
In his speech at the 1992 freshman convocation ceremony, late Tufts history professor Gerald Gill spoke on the importance of multicultural studies in higher education. The speech, along with similar writing and proposals set forth by the Gill-headed Equal Educational Opportunity Committee (EEOC), laid the groundwork for what would eventually become the Tufts curriculum’s World Civilizations requirement. Less than 30 years later, the requirement is under fire from student leaders and organizers concerned with issues of cultural literacy and respect, the same reasons the requirement was implemented in the first place.
For my World Civilizations requirement, I took a class called “Music as Culture.” The class covered several different musical traditions spanning from Indian classical music to the rich tradition of Steel Pan playing in Trinidad and Tobago. As I became more cognizant of the range of musical stylings and interpretations in existence, I began to recognize how widespread the musical offerings are at Tufts from within the Music department and beyond. The night before my Gladys Knight brunch, I ran into four of my friends who had just returned from a formal event put on by Tufts’ four South Asian dance teams. I ran into them while I was with two members of the Ladies of Essence - Tufts’ only all-female a cappella group specializing in the music of the African Diaspora - and three additional members of S-Factor, Essence’s male counterpart. We walked past a poster advertising a show for Full Sound, a Tufts a cappella group specializing in Chinese pop music, as we headed to an event co-hosted by Roti & Rum - Tufts’ Caribbean dance team.
These are just small examples that serve to offer a glimpse into the omnipresence of cultural music and performance groups at Tufts. Being a student here necessitates stepping outside of one’s cultural comfort zone and provides one with the opportunity to engage with a multitude of cultures on a personal level. I feel lucky to go to school in an environment where everyone can have their Gladys Knight moment and have somebody to share it with.