Not just a Giddens sister: Lalenja Harrington sings out, educates and inspires
Professor Lalenja Harrington, Ph.D., is far more than just “the world’s greatest and most over-qualified tour manager,” as the Grammy-winning singer and musician Rhiannon Giddens affectionately called her during last October’s concert for the University of North Carolina Greensboro’s 125 Anniversary. “My sister is a brilliant educator who took time off from her academic career here to get our show on the road,” she said when bringing the woman born Lalenja Giddens onstage for a rousing rendition of the Staples Singers’ “Freedom Highway.”
“The beauty of our relationship is that we both have our creative endeavors and interests,” said Dr. Harrington to me in her office last Saturday. “We have our own spaces where we’re able to pursue the things we’re interested in, but we have always been really committed to supporting each other.”
Our conversation took place on the third floor of UNCG’s MHRA building, where Dr. Harrington is director of Academic Programming Development & Evaluation for Beyond Academics, a four-year certificate program supporting students with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The program emphasizes high-education, self-determination, community inclusion and independent living. Students completing requirements for graduation receive a certificate in Integrative Community Studies.
When I asked if there was a particular Beyond Academics success story she’d like to tell our readers about, she described a student who graduated a few years ago. “When he began the program, his parent was his guardian, and ultimately responsible for all major decision-making in his life.” Over the course of the program, she said, he learned the things that young adults in college must learn to gain control of their lives. “He encapsulated that journey in his senior portfolio, and was able to use that document to communicate with the courts.”
When he requested restoration of his rights, the court granted it. “This was an affirmation of what we believe about college as an environment for becoming a more self-determined person. We truly appreciate our partnership with UNCG in this endeavor, as they trailblaze with our students, challenging myths and misconceptions about ability along the way.”
She also made it clear she does not think she deserves credit for the program’s success, saying that she preferred “to highlight a few instructors who truly get it.” One she named was Stuart Schleien, Ph.D. “He’s worked with us from the beginning, ensuring that his classes are accessible and making it clear he recognizes the value of all voices in his classroom.” Another she named was Megan Cayton, “one of our newest collaborators, whose universally designed approach to teaching welcomes any and all.” Dr. Harrington called their pedagogical practices “a key component of opening up higher education to a wider swath of student learners, which is ultimately what we want to see this movement do.”
She said that she relates to her students in having what she calls an “unruly body/mind” in the classroom and educational settings, one that resists what traditional academia defines as an ideal student (white, male, privileged, able-bodied). “Our program seeks to advocate with anybody/mind that has been silenced, restricted, denied, or made invisible by the educational system status quo.”
An untraditional career path brought Dr. Harrington a back to Greensboro, the city of her birth, where she came from a family of bluegrass musicians on her father’s side. “On my mother’s side, particularly when I lived with my grandmother, I grew up with the popular black music of the day, like the Manhattans, Marvin Gaye, and Earth Wind and Fire.” She said her grandmother loved to play the Manhattans’ “Kiss and Say Goodbye,” but also Kenny Rogers’ “You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille.” On T.V., they watched both Soul Train and Hee Haw, which she called “a reflection of that connection between the black community and country music that Rhiannon is digging so deeply into these days.” Her mother expanded her horizons into folk music and the hippie scene, while also sharing her love of doo-wop and black 1960s classics.
After attending Western Guilford high school, she found herself “looking for a chance to put some distance between me and North Carolina.” Accepted by several universities, she chose Princeton, planning become a medical illustrator. “But chemistry put the kibosh on any hopes I had of a biology major, so psychology it was.”
There, two things changed the course of her life. The first was becoming a member of the a cappella group the Princeton Tigerlilies, which helped her “tap into music as a creative outlet with a confidence I’d not had before.” The second was a summer job working with children experiencing emotional disabilities. “That sparked what would become a lifelong interest in working with people.”
She also became involved with the slam poetry scene. “I cut my teeth on it at the Cantab Lounge in Boston, where I was exposed to great poets of that time, such as Patricia Smith, Danny Solis, Lisa King, Taylor Mali and others.” She was the anchor for the Boston team that won second place at the 1994 National Poetry Slam but said that one of her favorite experiences was a show she did with local poets at the Boston Center for the Arts called Women R Us. “It was an incredible experience, three of us on stage, telling our stories in a collaborative choreopoem.”
She returned to North Carolina to earn a Masters in Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill. Receiving her MA there in 1996 and entering the Ph.D. program at UNCG in 2012 didn’t keep her from performing.
“I did some poetry here and there, local slams, workshops with Poetry GSO, and some performing with Rhiannon.” While she described her creative side as “quiet” for a while after her son Justin was born, he got a role in Triad Stage’s Beautiful Star when he was 9, which led to her love for musicals, especially after both she and Justin performed in a local production of Children of Eden, a musical adaptation of the Book of Genesis. “So began my love affair with the musical stage.” Since then she’s been in a number of theatrical productions, of which Rent was her favorite musical and Born Bad her favorite straight play.
She also collaborated with her younger sister, co-writing the song “Country Girl” on the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ Leaving Eden and contributing vocals to their earlier albums Dona Got a Ramblin’ Mind and Heritage. In 2013, she and Rhiannon recorded the album I Know I’ve Been Changed, on which they were billed as the Giddens Sisters. That partnership did not end when her younger sibling embarked on her solo career. In 2015, they co-composed the song “Moonshiner’s Daughter” with T Bone Burnett, and in 2017, collaborated on the song “Baby Boy” on Rhiannon’s acclaimed second album Freedom Highway, to which Dr. Harrington also contributed vocals.
She said it would be simplistic to call herself the academic sibling and Rhiannon the performing one. “I would argue that what Rhi does is just as academic; she is absolutely teaching as she performs, with her great wealth of knowledge about the history of African-American music.” Dr. Harrington said her own challenge is “a search to bring the creative into the academic, as my brain is just wired to think in the poetic.” She described herself as “constantly looking for ways to bring my teacher, researcher and artist selves together, in much the same way that Rhiannon is bringing those selves together on stage. We’re always remarking on the mirroring that we are finding in our creative, career and life journeys.”
She called 2017 a very transformative year in her own journey. “There was a moment when I was finishing up my dissertation as I was on the tour bus out to California for my first gig, that I wondered what in the world I was doing, but it was ultimately an incredible experience, just taking a right turn from my every day at the university, getting to share an important message every night with audiences, and spending that time with my sister and son.”
She laughed at the memory of being called “the world’s most over-qualified tour manager,” saying “Oh my goodness, I had no idea! Props to Rhiannon, her management team and her band for being so patient with me.” The experience, she said, gave her a huge appreciation of what a tour manager actually does.
“There’s just so much! TMs are responsible for making sure that the show is successful while on the road, communicating in advance with all of the venues, making sure technical and hospitality details are in place before shows, scheduling tour buses or making plane reservations, making sure drivers get paid and have whatever they need on the road.” She said the tour manager is also responsible for collecting fees from venues, doing daily finance reports, managing time sheets, ensuring that band and crew get money for food, and scheduling accommodations. “I want to give a shout out to every TM working away out there!”
For her next performing gig, she’s staying in Greensboro but taking center stage. Starting May 24, she’ll be performing jazz on Thursday nights at Greensboro’s O. Henry Hotel. She described her style as “an old-school standard one, kind of like Dinah Washington,” with other influences including Sarah Vaughan, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald. “Not the way Ella used her voice as an instrument, that’s not in my wheelhouse, but I love her. Who doesn’t love Ella?”
When I asked what else she’s looking forward to aside from the O. Henry gig, she laughed, “You mean, other than readjusting after living out of suitcases for a year?”
Despite the rigors of the road, she said that the professional break had been restorative, but she was glad to return to academia. “I am in a new role with my program, focusing on curriculum, research and program evaluation, and I love it.” She also said she’s looking forward to making new connections with local artists and initiatives, “to getting back on the dramatic stage and continue flexing my acting muscles, to figure out what’s next with poetry, and to essentially begin enjoying life as an empty nester, watching my kid Justin find his own creative path.”
A transcendent moment in the concert at which I first heard her name was when all the vocalists came onstage for a cover of Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down,” making it an anthem of optimistic defiance. I asked Dr. Harrington if she feels more or less hopeful about the future than she did that evening six months ago.
She said she struggles with that every day. “I want to be hopeful and live in that hope, but it’s so hard, with the daily assault on people in this country right now.” She admitted to a profound ambivalence. “There’s a part of me that feels that this system works only for a few people, a certain top percentage, and I feel overwhelmed at what, realistically and logistically, we can do to challenge that.” But she declared forming that challenge a necessity. “We can’t just keep doing the same things going forward, or we’re just going to see the same dire results.”
Bringing up her previous mention of her son Justin, I asked what she might tell him and other young people facing the state of the country right now, and if she had anything to say beyond what I recently told a friend’s daughter, that my generation should be sorry we let this happen.
“That’s a tough one,” she said with a sigh. “My son is 19 and all I can say is that his voice is important, that I support him, and I really try to listen to the youth and let go of what I think they should be doing, but instead trust them to take action in a way that is impactful and meaningful to them. I do tell him that he has a right to be angry and that his journey is his own with that.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.