Upon Receiving The Heinz Award March, 2003

Video available at the Heinz Awards site

My life, the work I have done as a way of being alive is just that, the way I have chosen to experience life in this universe. The path has not simply been what unfolded before me, at every point I have had the freedom to chose the way I would take. And I have at times made choices that risked everything I had to become who I am and to do the work I have been blessed to do.

I stand here as a one, yet in my journey, I have never been alone. I have moved through spaces opened by those before me, walked ground that is dust of the bones of those who died so that I could walk; and then there are my partners with me who have held my hand: my family – good parents in reality and as spirit guides, my brothers and sisters, my children and grandchildren, and a strong and powerful Southwest Georgia Black community are always with me.
Sweet Honey In The Rock is so much more than a singing group, not only the group I founded but the work that helped me to find myself. To come together with a small group of women 80-100 times a year for 30 years in rehearsals, meetings, concerts, and the challenge of travel – is a way of belonging to a surport unit that even in retirement continues to provide balance, growth, strength and on-going affirmation.

And too, moving to this city, the nation’s capitol, I joined with others who consciously and overtly created a community that would nurture and sustain our values and our families. I am grateful that James and Miriam Early two of those foundational forces in my life are with me tonight.

Then too there is the decision a while back when Adisa Douglas and I decided that our different and related work and struggle would move better were we joined in life partnership—and so it has been—joined and better…

As I searched for the nature of my work as a scholar and artist. I have responded to voices that have whispered and protested, saying: “we are not a part of the database of ordered knowledge—our stories are not here, the nuance with which we move is not acknowledged as a part of the heart of this culture we help create and extend. And we were there and we are here, we do fundamentally shape and influence the cultural lifeblood of this land of our birth. I began to understand as a scholar, that I would not so much be revising interpretations of the history of American culture as much as increasing the database of what is accessible about the cultural and historical journey of African Americans and thus helping to realign the evolving narrative of this country and our times.

As I began this work, I have had to turn again and again to the Black people and sometimes White people who had held sacred some part of this living story. And overwhelmingly they have responded with great passion and generosity and relief that others might know what they have cherished and protected all along.

So, as my work is honored, so too are the carriers of the traditions and those scholars who have joined me to continue this work. This award is for me evidence that there is a universe that like me, it too is alive. And thus it is, moving in my mother’s step by step approach to everything at the most startling and awe-inspiring times I have been made to look up and find that the unending life energy of the universe has washed me into the light created in the aftermath of my and ours efforts: touched me as if to say, you my child are making good use of the breath of life—carry on.

Thank you, to the Heinz Family Foundation and to Theresa Heinz for your spirit, your wisdom, your encouragement, support, your courage and your heart. On behalf of the African American people from which I come, I accept this award with a commitment to continue…as long as I have breath…

—Bernice Johnson Reagon