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Ada McKenzie: Sankofa's Songbirds

By: Andrew Mees, Director of College and Athletics Communications       communications@bloomfield.edu

Inspiration can come in all shapes and sizes.

For Assistant Professor of World Literature Dr. Ada McKenzie, the inspiration for her recent paper Sankofa’s Songbirds: African American Children as Culture Bearers in Jazz-Infused Children’s Literature came in pint-sized form; the kindergarten students she taught in the early stages of her career in education.

It was during a typical period of youthful unrest when McKenzie gathered her students together to read them the popular children’s book Jazzy Miz Mozetta, a story illustrating the powers of jazz music in an urban African-American neighborhood. McKenzie was amazed by her students’ reaction and enthrallment in the tale, from the language utilized to accentuate the sounds of music to the artwork accompanying the story.

Through this educational experience, Sankofa’s Songbirds was born, a paper published in October by Routledge African Series in an anthology entitled IdentityQuest: African Youth in Contemporary Literature and Popular Culture. Examining jazz-infused children’s literature and its ability serve as an educational tool, the work utilizes the Akan word “Sankofa” in its title, meaning, “to go back and retrieve what has been lost”. The choice highlights the musical genre’s ability to connect people of all ages (including the “Songbirds” of America’s younger generations), and further the cultural impact the style continues to have for years to come.

“In African-American and Afro-Caribbean cultures, the connections between various disciplines are invaluable, because the arts have played a pivotal role in shaping the cultural narratives which resound throughout the children’s literature,” McKenzie said. “That is why I felt jazz music was such an important topic to shed light on ⎯ it serves as a vehicle to connect generations, and these connections are so important to maintaining our cultural heritage.”

Earning a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature from UMass-Amherst in 2007, McKenzie has presented numerous academic papers, and while an undergraduate at Columbia University served as a Co-Editor of the book Building Self-Esteem in Young Women (published in 1999). Joining the Bloomfield College faculty in Sept. 2013, McKenzie hopes her work will help inspire educators to take a closer look at the powerful impact music can have on the preservation of cultural traditions.

“My hope is that this research will inspire other scholars and K-12 educators to think deeply about the connections between African-American music and literature, and to value the synergy that results from an interdisciplinary explanation of both,” she said. “My work shows that jazz can be used as an entertaining way to educate our youth, and pass our heritage on to the next generation. It is now up to us, as educators, to utilize its powers.”

 

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