Love and Equity: The Genius of Silvester Henderson, Gospel Impresario and Social Activist in Public Education

"You can give without loving, but you can never love without giving." Victor Hugo, Les Miserables


Why talk about love in a time of massive corporate greed, the destruction of human rights and the environment? Where is hope when images of men and women are shown again and again as they're beaten, tasered or killed by police and become so commonplace that our hearts and minds become numb to it? The writer Victor Hugo stated that the great joy in life is the conviction that we are loved. Who doesn't long for happiness? Who doesn't want to be loved?

I met Sylvester Henderson over 20 years ago at a small community college where I'd been recently employed as a full time professor of English in far East Contra Costa County in the San Francisco Bay area. My first image of him was of a large man, soothing voice, great smile, extending a hand to me and welcoming me to the community. He has been teaching, engaging and entertaining people for over four decades both nationally and internationally.

Professor Henderson's awards, accolades and accomplishments are endless. Among them: NAACP Educational Integrity Award (2004);University of California, Berkeley: Educational Commendation for 20 years of service (2005); Honored for his contributions to "sacred choral music" by the Academy of Gospel Music Awards (2006); Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Award (2012); Professor of the Year Award (2012-2013);Quarter Finalist for Grammy Association Music Educator Award (2014); Three Congressional Honors for advances in bringing academic recognition to the gospel song as an African American Art Form

Having returned to campus recently, I ran into Professor Henderson in the hallway by the Little Theatre and thought it might be an appropriate time for an interview, given the recent attacks on young African American men we have been witnessing now for the past decade, the increase in the number of men and women being placed in prisons whose lives are destroyed and the increasing militarization of the police in places throughout the country where many young African American males find themselves now living and too often, dropping out of school. I wondered what his take might be on all this.

JF: Thanks for speaking with me today, Professor Henderson. I'm hoping to learn more about you and your work through this interview. Let's start with the obvious. Where did you grow up?

SH: I grew up in the 1960's in East Oakland. My mother was a wool presser making $2 an hour and my father was a naval supplier. Together, they barely made $6,000 a year. They were lucky -- at least they had jobs. Many in the neighborhood didn't. They had both grown up in the South in extremely poor communities, and by the time they were adults, they were taking care of me, my brother and sister, and a niece and nephew.

JF: So what was it like in East Oakland in the 60's?

SH: Chaotic. And to make it worse, I was overweight. In junior high, the kids beat me up in the shower on my second day of school for no reason other than that I was fat. That's just how they were.

JF: How did you survive?

SH: My self-esteem was pretty badly damaged so I looked for an escape. Luckily, I found it in music.

JF: This was your gospel era, right?

SH: Yeah. I was actually first introduced to gospel music through a woman named Helen Stephens at the age of 8 when my mother took me to a church event. I remember seeing a woman with a treetop wig with a huge choir called The Voices of Christ. She's a famous woman actually who passed not long ago. When I saw her with this choir, I begged my mother to let me take music lessons with her but my mother said, "She probably doesn't have the time for you." But that's how I got this great interest. As a child, because I grew up in a home with complications, there was something about the music that was very comforting to me. From that point on I could not get this vision of a Gospel choir out of my mind. I was 8 years old and mesmerized by The Voices of Christ!

JF: You were hooked!

SH: I was! I was hypnotized by it. I'm not exactly sure why. Maybe it was Helen's hat! As a child I dreamed about it.

JF: So in some ways this was your "visionary moment" as an 8 year old?

SH: Very much so. And as I got older I had a kind of extreme life growing up in the inner city of Oakland and I became more and more interested in classical piano music. And they didn't seem to mix. I grew up in this urban Pentecostal church environment but I also liked Beethoven and Mozart and I was very drawn to conservatism and structure. I'm very much attracted to detailed instruction as well. Everything I do in my life is always very structured. I don't know if that was a way of dealing with the insanity of the surroundings or what. I've thought a lot about this because it's totally opposite of the environment I grew up in. But I've always been attracted to everything having its place.

JF: So does structure help you feel a sense of safety?

SH: Very much so. Even now in my checkbook everything has to be in a line. My wife thinks it's crazy but it's my values. It works well for me.

JF: Can you connect that desire for structure and order to your vast accomplishments in public education?

SH: In public education the very nature of Gospel music, often categorized as 'music that promotes Good News' is symbolic of the values of an institution which is supposed to promote equity and success and give people the ability to change their lives if they choose to do so. This fits in with the music. Gospel becomes a vehicle by which you can integrate diverse groups of people. It's one form of artistic expression that can draw people together for the common good. A public educational institution should act as an effective church minus the theology. When I think in terms of a big congregation, 4 or 5 thousand members, if you remove theology and you break it down into common humanity, you are now dealing with principles of love, compassion, family. At a community college, for example, you have a wide array of individuals with diverse backgrounds. Everyone has equal value. That's the reason I use Gospel music as a teaching tool: to show that it's not the music that's most important. The music is the draw. It's what the music can do to nurture. To open the heart up to a common humanity. To encourage people through giving a level of comfort to opening up and exploring new opportunities for personal growth which can then change their lives.

JF: Wow. That sounds pretty revolutionary in a culture like America that promotes the idea of success through consumerism.

SH: Opening up to a common humanity. The support of love. To give solace. A shift in values for certain. When I began doing my work with Gospel music there was no place anywhere in the country where people could actually go to learn Gospel music outside of the church. A professor of Gospel music was unheard of.

JF: So you were the first?

SH: One of the first ever to have formal skills, teaching other more traditional subjects as well, but to actually have a deep passion in Gospel music, yes. I created a path to show how you could be a scholar, an academic and still have a love for Gospel music. My whole life has been dedicated to that purpose: taking what society has classified as the worst or lowly and showing how it can rise and stand equal to what society defines as the best. Both in music and with people.

JF: In a sense you are investing in the higher purpose of human beings and therefore in the future. Interesting, how you also stepped away from traditional academic disciplines and brought into public institutions what was always linked with Christianity.

SH: Although gospel is connected specifically to Christianity, Christianity should be connected philosophically with a love for humanity. I concentrate on the spirit and the passion that is linked to everyone's purpose. Christianity is just one philosophy that people hold onto in order to, hopefully, better their lives. Islam, Buddhism, Judaism all searching for ways to better their lives. I don't concentrate on any form of religion. My goal is simply to teach the music as if I were teaching Bach or Beethoven. How someone in the audience interprets it is up to them. Some people think they are in church and other people just enjoy the music and party. It's the one musical form so festive in nature that it pulls people together.

JF: Why is that?

SH: I think because gospel music is a vocal and spoken style of singing as opposed to other forms of music. Thomas Dorsey, for example, going back to 1929, wrote the song Precious Lord out of the tragic death of his wife. Gospel music helps people answer questions. People with no particular faith are comforted by the music and the voices.

JF: For me whenever I attend a gospel concert, I always feel like I don't want to stay in my seat. I can't stay down. I want to participate by rising up with others and connecting. There's an automatic sense of community brought forth by the music. You sense resonance to the past, to freedom fighters, to slavery, to overcoming oppression and it's a great feeling.

SH: What entity actually can draw as many people in as a Gospel concert?

JF: A rock concert?

SH: Yes. But remember rock is historically a white version of African American blues. Except you would not find predominantly conservative members of society going to see The Rolling Stones. Gospel appeals to everyone. You will find young, old, Christians, non Christians, leftists, rightists at various times for various reasons experiencing Gospel music. And this takes us back to public education. Which is supposed to be a place of diversity and opportunity to grow intellectually and as a human being.

JF: How does Gospel music do this specifically?

SH: Think about it as spoken text. It encourages people to think about the purpose of their lives. The deeper purpose. It encourages organizations and institutions to seek answers to complex problems that can really only be solved by people. Social and economic problems need to be solved by people coming together.

JF: So while it can be perceived as a traditional conservative art form, it can also be used for evolutionary change when taught as an academic subject?

SH: Exactly.

JF: Today spoken word and storytelling are forms that have exploded in popular expression throughout the country and the world. I myself have even stuck my old toes into the storytelling world and found there to be strong community surrounding it, especially in urban settings like Los Angeles and certainly Oakland. What's the connection to this and Gospel music?

SH: The pulpit. A lot of the spoken word is actually a sermon. A sermon about social justice but still a sermon. This has been throughout history the role of the African American preacher. In African American life and in life in general, folks need something bigger than themselves to believe in, connect with.

JF: Something outside their own selfish concerns?

SH: Humankind can not function well without a grander purpose. Educational institutions cannot simply be teaching knowledge. Wisdom comes when knowledge is put into play. This is the heart of true teaching. It stems from love.

JF: In the beginning was the word. Spoken word, rap, hip hop, storytelling. Gospel. All connected.

SH: Yes. Gospel is just life. It's been a benefit for me to work in academia. A lot of people can't separate their religious beliefs from their life's purpose. But I can. Because I look at it from a much larger perspective.

JF: You don't push any particular religion obviously. You're more like the universal messenger of the good news.

SH: I certainly want to be perceived that way. Bottom line: Love, care and compassion. Social justice and equity through a standpoint of love. For people and students in low-income areas struggling with serious issues of survival, gospel becomes a way for them to express their difficulties in living but not focus on the negative. It gives them hope and promise for the future so they can act responsibly.

JF: It lifts them up?

SH: It always has.

JF: Well that leads me to my next question. Statistics about public education show how it is failing the poor and in particular young African American men. How does teaching gospel music address this problem?

SH: It can be used as a bridge to nurture them, to help them address their frustrations and disappointments at the same time offering a comforting environment. Once they are physically inside a college and know their history is being respected, gospel can be a powerful tool to engage them further in discussions about social and economic opportunities or a lack of opportunities and what to do about it. It gets them off the streets and into a place that supports them. It helps them move forward. One of the reasons I believe we don't have more successful African American young men is simply for one reason: nobody loves them. If you're not loved, why bother to show up?

JF: If their spirit is valued and reflected in singing gospel music with others, it sends a powerful message that they are valued.

SH: Yes because people go where they feel loved. My truth of an effective campus is a campus that can view itself as a well-run church minus theology.

JF: That's a different view than what many, if not all, college campuses have become. Many have become an extension of a capitalist society that says get these people into jobs, get them transferred, teach them basic skills. None of this is at odds with your view but it seems to leave out the aspect of genuine engaged community necessary for all students to feel like their life has purpose and meaning outside of how they fit into corporate America.

SH: We need to nurture all aspects of mankind. But the most fundamental aspect is the one that needs to belong. To be loved.

JF: Bring this idea back to African American men, please. Their incarceration rate is horrible. The recent violence against them on the streets by police resulting in their deaths, horrific. Why are we failing them in public institutions?

SH: Take S.T.E.M. for example. (S.T.E.M. = the promotion of Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics). I stated in the Contra Costa Times that the concept was prejudicial to low income people, but in particular to African American men.

JF: How so?

SH: I believe in order to engage them in something like S.T.E.M. you need to meet folks where they're at to take them where you want them to be. That's the missing piece. If you're trying to get an African American student who uses street language to engage in learning a physical science, you need to find a way to understand him and what he's trying to say. You need to learn to speak his language to teach him how to understand Plato.

JF: So it's irresponsible not to connect and engage in a way that's meaningful.

SH: It's not fulfilling the role of a teacher which is to meet people on their own level and bring them someplace new. That's how public education is failing African American men coming out of poverty. They are told constantly that who they are is wrong.

JF: We need more men and women of color in positions of management, teaching and advising in higher education. But we can not access them and bring them in if they don't make it through the system.

SH: It's a challenge that needs to be taken on and quickly.

JF: How have you personally been successful with thousands of students over your 3 plus decades of teaching?

SH: I've tried to nurture them emotionally but at the same time engage them intellectually for future intellectual development in matters that are important. For example, I spoke recently with the new chief financial operator at a hospital in San Luis Obispo who had been in my gospel choir at UC Berkeley as a young man. He told me that it was in my choir he had received nurturing and support when there was no other place on campus where he felt he belonged. It was the choir that gave him greater self esteem so he could tackle the more intellectually driven subjects.

JF: It sounds like you help develop people so they can put down roots and feel stable in society.

SH: You must give love and validation, support creativity and exploration and encourage conversation. It's that simple.

JF: Apart from your accomplishments thus far, which are very impressive, what goals have you set for yourself to expand your reach to help more African American men and other people with limited economic opportunities?

SH: I would like to become a major spokesman and advocate for African American men, particularly ones in prisons. I have a great love for and a sadness inside of me when I see so many young African American men locked up. I don't have a desire to make them all academic scholars but a desire to give purpose to their lives. I want to give them the message that who they are is okay. Not always what they've done is okay but who they are is okay. There's an important difference. You can be a decent person who made a poor choice.

JF: Gospel in San Quentin?

SH: Yes, why not? A network of singers in prisons throughout the country. Then use the songs to teach reading, how to analyze math, connect it to technology. I would like to become a national leader in promoting principles of equity and success for African American males throughout the US and the world.

JF: What's your next step?

SH: I am now Faculty Senate president here at Los Medanos College. This is a good first step into more visibility. I took on this elected position because I wanted to show that people in the arts could do this. Most faculty Senate presidents come from the math and sciences. Artists too can be very analytical, logical, methodical.

JF: And as you said before you enjoy that?

SH: I do but I am also a passionate person with emotions. In the entire history of my campus we have never experienced an African American male as Senate President so for that reason alone I took on the position. But I also thought an African American man who was really African American in his manner and speech needed to put himself out there publicly as a leader. Because one thing I have never done and never will do is betray the ethic of who I am to make others feel comfortable. I am an African American man who has achieved great success and I am proud of that. It is to be celebrated and enjoyed. I have a manner that is true to who I am. In a time of aspirations for equity, that needs to be understood by the general population. I am a big black man with a big personality.

JF: Personally, I would like to see more African Americans as presidents of public academic institutions.

SH: From your mouth to God's ear.

JF: Thank you for opening up and sharing your aspirations, goals and achievements. It's been a pleasure.

SH: It's crucial to the survival of not just African Americans but the human race we begin to love and respect and understand one another. What else do we have really?


Photos courtesy Silvester Henderson