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February 1, 2004

Washingtom Post

Autumn belongs to Bernice Johnson Reagon. It's her season. Maybe it's because Reagon, founder of the world-famous a cappella group Sweet Honey in the Rock was born on an early October day. Some of her favorite childhood memories are of starting school on those crisp mornings in southwest Georgia. Things seem to work right in her life in the fall. Like the founding of Sweet Honey, which debuted 30 years ago in November, on Howard University's campus in Washington, D.C..

So in the autumn of 2002, when Bernice Reagon turned 60 and began to wonder what it might be like, feel like to move on, to leave the group for which her name has become synonymous, she didn't resist the idea. Instead, she let it blossom. She eventually settled on an early 2004 retirement. Reagon is a woman people talk about in cliches: "a force of nature," "a powerhouse," "bigger than life."

She was the stalwart as 22 women have passed through Sweet Honey's ranks, coming and going and coming back. She has guided the group as its primary songwriter, composer and artistic director. Under that direction, Sweet Honey has gone from a revolving-door quartet to a sextet that's known worldwide, a Grammy-winning collective that celebrates the music of the black church -- spirituals, hymns and gospel -- while creatively blending it with jazz, blues, R&B, pop and now rock, thanks to a collaboration with Reagon's daughter, Toshi, 39.

Reagon is formidable, accomplished. Her work with Sweet Honey alone has made her a cultural icon, but Reagon is also a distinguished scholar. She has a doctorate in history and spent 20 years as a curator at the Smithsonian, where she is now a curator emeritus. In 1989 she won a MacArthur Foundation "genius grant" and is the Cosby Chair Professor of Fine Arts at Spelman College in Atlanta and also professor emeritus of history at American University in Washington. Ysaye Barnwell is the new president of Sweet Honey's corporation. Apart from Reagon, she has been with the group for the longest uninterrupted period -- 24 years. More

Posted by acapnews at February 1, 2004 9:35 AM

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