Association of Black Anthropologists
Oral Presentation Session
Playing in a marching band is a creative activity that nevertheless demands strict rule compliance to execute a musical part, march in step, and maintain order within a quasi-militaristic organizational structure. Band directors in New Orleans emphasize the discipline necessary for their students to develop not only musical competence but behavioral obedience. Another word for discipline is “grit,” the buzzword ascribed to a goal of self-improvement through resilience to challenge. Championed by Angela Duckworth in Grit: The Power and Passion of Perseverance and integral to the “Character Growth Card” she designed for the KIPP charter school network, grit is the racialized language through which students of color are taught to reform themselves for basic survival, let alone success. The site of the nation’s only 100% charter system, enrolling 87% black students, New Orleans has become a testing ground for pedagogies of grit. Though arts instruction faces drastic cuts, band continues to thrive, I argue, because its disciplinary approaches dovetail with the system-wide commitment to grit. Even the signature sound of New Orleans bands — loud, strident, syncopated — can be heard as gritty. Media representations like the movie Drumline and the documentary The Whole Gritty City amplify narratives of band as a “tough love” antidote to criminality. Kids seek out band because the emphasis on grit is presented through lessons in black performance as culturally relevant pedagogy. Band sustains black cultural practice, fosters creative expression and joy, while also supporting the racialized disciplinary objectives of the school reform movement.