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Ethnomusicology student and Fulbright recipient Maya Cunningham builds cultural pride through music

Wed, Dec 14, 2016

Cunningham leaves her Southeast, D.C. classroom for Botswana on a Fulbright this January to further explore how musical and ancestral ties form national identity in children.

By Cara Fleck Plewinski, School of Music


Ethnomusicology M.A and Ph.D. student Maya Cunningham has observed that African-American history is often excluded from grade school curricula. Reflecting on her own experience in high school, she remembers her world history textbook contained exactly one paragraph about African history. And while Black History Month lessons can supplement where textbooks fall short, students in the U.S. still graduate from high school with little sense of the African-American legacy. Cunningham believes that for African-American students, this lack of cultural education, combined with negative media images about Africa and Black identity, damages self-esteem.  

“There is no federally mandated or state mandated Black history curriculum that addresses the needs of African-American students,” she says. “They are taught, even if it is by omission, that their culture and history is insignificant and not valuable.”

As an elementary school music educator in Southeast, D.C., Cunningham delivers a curriculum that teaches her students, who are mostly African-American, about their ancestry. Her lessons highlight the critical influence of the African diaspora on familiar music and musical instruments.

“Music is the one intangible link that Africans, who were brought to the new world, carried with them,” says Cunningham. “It still ties African-Americans to their homeland, and it is this tie that makes music intrinsically linked to Black identity.”

A recipient of a Fulbright Distinguished Award in Teaching, Cunningham leaves her classroom for Botswana this January to further explore how these musical and ancestral ties form national identity in children. During her time abroad, she will observe music classes in the city of Gaborone; interview musicians, music students and music teachers; observe how music is taught in the elementary school classroom; attend performances of traditional Botswanian music and participate in conferences on music of the South African freedom struggle.

Upon completing her research, Cunningham will return to her classroom and develop new curricula that expands the global competency and boosts the cultural pride of her students. She also plans to create educational resources that are relevant to various cultural backgrounds for educators in humanities.

Learn more about Maya Cunningham’s projects at The Diaspora Institute and The Grandmother Project.