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Photo: Erin Einhorn

As soon as Quincy Stewart started teaching music, he realized that harmonies and melodies would never be enough — not nearly enough for a man determined to connect his students with their history and culture.

“I’m a black man and these are black children,” said Stewart, 59, a music teacher, band leader and choir director at Detroit’s Central High School. “These children have been robbed by this system, from the cradle until right now. They’ve been miseducated, undereducated and misused …. They walk in here and they don’t even know who they are.”

So Stewart’s music classes — whether he’s teaching music theory, music appreciation or the fundamentals of playing piano — take kids on a tour through black history, from the nations of Africa to Black Power and Civil Rights.  

At a time when music classes are seen as a luxury in many schools, with districts cutting arts instruction in favor of math and reading, Stewart’s approach to teaching music demonstrates that it doesn’t have to be one or the other.  The arts can be deeply integrated into core subjects.

Stewart teaches math by walking music theory students through the mathematical details of musical scoring.

He teaches writing by insisting that students write several papers a year on themes covered in class. He cuts them no break on grammar or format, marking up papers with a red pen in a manner more typical of English teachers than of those whose certifications are in instrumental music.

“Some of your papers look like a blood transfusion when I get done,” Stewart told a group of students on a recent morning. “That’s because y’all can’t write.”

But it’s history, power and politics that get the most attention in his classes.

Central High School teacher Quincy Stewart uses music to teach African-American history to his students. “These children have been robbed by this system. … They’ve been miseducated, undereducated and misused,” he said. Photo: Erin Einhorn

“I found that a majority of my students didn’t know anything about … their own history,” he said.

Students knew about George Washington and Thomas Jefferson — but hadn’t gotten the full story.

“They were slaveholders and racists and white supremacists,” Stewart said. “So once we debunk all of the myths … then we get to open up that can of worms about uncovering black history and we use music to do it.”

He starts his class with Africa, playing students the music of the Akan and the Ashanti people, the music of Ghana, Mali and Timbuktu.

“We’ve traveled all the way from the west coast of Africa to Jamaica and the islands to Virginia,” Stewart said. “We moved through slavery up until the first part of the 20th century and we get into Rosewood, to Oklahoma, into all those so-called race riots where blacks were slaughtered because they had towns of their own and the corresponding music that goes with it. This is the time of Louis Armstrong. This is the time of Freddie Keppard. This is the time of Bessie Smith. So we play the music from there.”

On a recent morning, he peppered his students with questions about Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. He drilled them on Hampton’s background, the details of the 1969 Chicago police raid that killed him and the FBI COINTELPRO operation that targeted him and other leaders of 1960s-era social movements.

“And what were some of the songs that were playing at the time of the Black Power movement?” he asked his students. “Give me some songs!”

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Stewart questioned his class about the ethics of Civil Rights and Black Power leaders who worked as FBI informants and pressed them to say if, during slavery, they would have considered informing on other slaves in a bid to secure their own freedom. (One student volunteered that he’d gladly choose freedom regardless of the consequences to others).

Stewart even used the arrival of a mouse that came scurrying across his classroom as a teaching moment, comparing the rodent’s struggle to the history of African Americans in the United States.

“I’ve tried to kill him but he’s an elusive mouse,” Stewart said. “He knows his rat history. He knows that down through history, human beings don’t like him. He knows that down through history, people have set traps for him. He knows that down through history, people are out to get him. He’s become very crafty at getting away, waiting until my back is turned and then he runs.”

Stewart’s students say the history lessons have been eye-opening.

“When I signed up for this class, I thought I’d be going over Beethoven and classical artists and stuff but I found information about myself, my history,” said student Lamont Hogan. “This class gave me more information about myself than I could even imagine. Things that I never would have known and never would have imagined without Mr. Stewart teaching.”

Teaching at Central hasn’t been easy, Stewart said.

The state-run Education Achievement Authority, which took over Central and 14 other low-performing Detroit schools in 2012, has undergone dramatic changes in recent years and is going through another transition now as its schools return to the main Detroit district next week.

The changes have taken a toll on teachers and students, said Stewart, who came to the school in 2012, the first year of the EAA.

“It’s kind of like being … at the bottom of a latrine,” Stewart said. “The biggest thud from what comes into a latrine lands at the bottom … Us teachers have really felt the thud of the crap.”

He hasn’t been able to get the resources he felt he needed for his classroom. When he took over a music program that had lost most of its musical equipment to theft before he arrived, he used his own money to buy things like drums, keyboards and guitars for his students to use, he said.

Attendance has also been an issue. His first-hour class on a morning in early June had just eight students — a fraction of the 24 enrolled.

“A lot of kids don’t have transportation,” he said. “Some are catching three and four buses to get here and, I hate to say it, but … some of it is just lack of parental support telling them to get their ass up and get to school. They have the liberty of coming to school, in many cases, when they feel like it.”

Now the latest challenge Stewart is facing is a likely cut to his salary.

He is among EAA teachers bracing for dramatic pay cuts when their schools return to the main district.

But Stewart says he’s looking forward to his first summer off in years. Since EAA teachers were required to work through the summer, the school’s return to the Detroit Public Schools Community District will mean a chance for Stewart to spend the summer playing music and performing. He is a professional musician who says he toured the world before going into teaching in his 40s.

Stewart doesn’t know what will happen next year as Central gets a new principal and as that principal responds to changes from the new Detroit superintendent. He said he plans to keep teaching this way as long as he is permitted to do so.

“I have what I can give them and I’m going to give it to them,” he said. “And if a principal comes in here and tells me I can’t do it, then that’s the day I quit. I leave. Period. Because I’m not here for the money. There is no money.”

Editor’s Note: Chalkbeat is a nonprofit news site covering educational change in public schools. Daily Detroit syndicates their content with permission. Meet the local writers of Chalkbeat here on our Daily Detroit Happy Hour podcast.