The Cavalier Daily
Serving the University Community Since 1890

Song of Solidarity

First of four articles exploring the value of cultural communications and those who cross racial boundries.

To an outsider, a Black Voices rehearsal might look like chaos. Women seated in the soprano section whisper to each other while the tenors review a stanza of song. The lyrics are scrawled across the chalkboard at the front of the Minor Hall classroom, but there's no sheet music. The drummer up front lays down an incessant beat as the music director signals to the alto section to perform their part.

Then the director shouts, "Hosanna," and more than a hundred voices harmonize at once. The sound overwhelms the room. Spontaneous clapping rhythms break out. The chorus echoes from the altos to the sopranos and bounces back to the basses. A row of women in the back choreographs intricate shoulder rolls. The gospel music takes over.

Black Voices celebrated its 30th anniversary this September, continuing its traditions of cultivating a Christian fellowship and nurturing a black culture at the University.

Over the years, another component was added to the group. Color.

A handful of non-black students join anywhere from 150 to 170 singers to worship together every Thursday night.

"Something that happens in Black Voices that you see in our concerts is that people have given up power to not be in the majority," Black Voices President Ambrose Faturoti said.

Third-year College student Priya Parker has an Indian mother and a white father and joined Black Voices at the beginning of her first year. She said she was looking for a choir and a Christian group. Black Voices satisfied both.

"I'm almost always in the minority, but I'd never been in a situation where the majority was African-American," Parker said. "It was the first time I was in a non-white culture."

As a white female in the group, fourth-year College student Ann Wertman admitted, "I was a little nervous the first time I went," but through the encouragement of a close friend in the choir, she found a welcoming atmosphere and the "spiritual support that I don't get from any other group here."

While Black Voices sings the anthems, spirituals and contemporary gospel music of black culture, it also provides an opportunity for people of all races to assemble in Christian fellowship and song.

"African-Americans have too much love in our hearts to discriminate," said M. Rick Turner, dean of the Office of African-American Affairs. "The last thing on our minds is to deny someone the right to join. If someone has it in their hearts to be part of this viable organization and they pass the tests of commitment, being part of a team and making a contribution, then they're in. Color doesn't enter the picture."

Thirty years ago, however, the issue of color dominated the picture.

"Black Voices was founded in a context with a lot of discrimination, racism and prejudice," Faturoti said.

Black Voices began as an off-Grounds choir at a time when black students frequently lived with members of the Charlottesville community instead of in the dorms with their peers.

Faturoti said the gospel choir gave black students who were scattered throughout the city a purpose to come together and see each other more often. It allowed them to freely express themselves with meaningful songs -- songs that united them.

"African-American students needed something to bring them together, and Black Voices offered a spiritual connection through culture, an opportunity to shower love on each other and sustain it," Turner said. "It's been a bedrock of stability."

That purpose continues today. Using Beverly Tatum's book "Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria?" as a guide, Faturoti explained how Black Voices fulfills the three goals of a cultural group in affirming identity, building community and cultivating leadership.

The members share "the common experience of race in America," he said. Having positive examples of leadership within the group also fosters a "knowledge of how to be successful as a black student at U.Va.," he added.

Black Voices is as much a community as a choir. It's a bastion of black culture as well as a center of Christianity. It's a place for mentorship and fellowship, which thrills Faturoti.

"I love the way first-year students can come and be affirmed on a lot of different levels," he said. The founders' intent to create a space for black students to celebrate their culture runs deep.

Turner said that although other organizations should look to Black Voices as a model of inclusion, the group's survival does not rest on it being multicultural.

"I don't know if they need other ethnic groups, but it's a testimony to their openness and their love for human kind," Turner said.

Faturoti was adamant that if non-black students join the group, then they should be there to worship.

"It's not about trying to be the curer of U.Va.'s race problems by being in the alto section of Black Voices," he said. "It's a lot more than that."

For Parker, being part of Black Voices has been about building true friendships.

"It's not like I'm doing this for some personal reason to show I'm not racist, or to say, 'Look, I have a black friend,'" she said. "It's a huge family. It's more of a family than a group. We have our rehearsals and engagements, but we also have things like Bible study and outside social events like ladies' nights."

Small prayer groups that open each rehearsal also foster fellowship, and the theme of worship carries the two-hour practice.

"Black Voices is a place for spiritual growth, a place to be around other believers," second-year College student Libby Jefferson said. "It's not just about race, and it doesn't matter what denomination you are either. There are Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Catholics, etc. There's everything, and to me that's just so powerful.

"By focusing all of your attention on race and not the ultimate purpose -- ministry -- you're missing out," she said.

The challenge posed by the high notes of gospel music dominates conversation, not concerns about generating racial interaction.

"Gospel music may be considered African-American, but you don't have to be black to feel the music and connect with it," fourth-year College student Alissa Irvin said.

At the Thursday night rehearsal, the music continues even after practice has ended. While the keyboardist packs up, scattered voices start humming a group favorite. The sound builds and the tenors jump in. Faturoti appears in front of the choir, pumping his arms in the air and pushing the music on.

Those who had started to put on their coats rise to their feet again. A unified "Rock of Ages" pounds from section to section and trails into the lobby of Minor Hall. With a final, soul-wrenching note of worship, they gather in tight, join hands and pray.

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