Remembering Dr. S. Allen Counter
A week ago yesterday, Dr. S. Allen Counter, Harvard Medical School Professor of Neurology, Harvard Foundation Director, and Faculty Advisor to the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, passed away after a brief illness. The 2017-2018 Executive Board of Kuumba, on behalf of all members of the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, both past and present, would like to extend its deepest condolences to the Counter Family, as well as all those who knew Dr. Counter as a colleague, an adviser, a mentor, and a friend. You are all in our thoughts and prayers.
To fully appreciate the indelible impact Dr. Counter had on Kuumba, one must travel back to the early 1970’s, when racial tensions on Harvard’s campus, and around the country, were especially high. The Civil Rights Movement was waning, the Black Power movement was peaking, and black students on Harvard’s campus were searching for safe spaces where they could fully and freely express their blackness without fear of critique or ridicule.
Amidst all this unrest and change, Dr. Counter, who had just earned a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University and a M.D. from the Karolinska Institute in Sweden, came to Harvard, in 1970, to serve as a postdoctoral fellow and assistant neurophysiologist at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital. As he served in these roles, he integrated himself into campus life as a live-in dormitory directory, resident tutor, and biological sciences tutor. This early commitment to enriching the lives of students foreshadowed the integral role Dr. Counter would come to play in the lives of countless students, particularly students of color, throughout his time at Harvard.
Less than a year after Dr. Counter came to Harvard, a group of Black students came together to create a safe space where they could engage in the radical act of Black self-love, and celebrate Black creativity and spirituality in all its forms. This newly found group, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, immediately became a source of strength and community for all who joined it. And when Mr. Robert Winfrey was tasked with leading the choir after the departure of Kuumba’s first director, Rev. Hubert Walters, in 1971, he immediately looked for Harvard faculty members who could provide resources and guidance to the choir when necessary. Dr. Counter, as Mr. Winfrey fondly recalls, quickly became one of those reliable sources of inspiration and assistance.
When Mr. Winfrey was preparing to retire as Kuumba’s director in 1997, he strongly encouraged the students to rename Kuumba’s “classic” events—the Black Arts Festival, the spring concert, and the winter concert—in honor of three men who had been integral to Kuumba’s effort to become an “important cultural entity on campus”: Walter J. Leonard (The Walter J. Leonard Black Arts Festival), Dean Archie C. Epps (The Dean Archie C. Epps Spring Concert), and Dr. S. Allen Counter (The Dr. S. Allen Counter Christmas Concert). In renaming Kuumba’s hallmark events in honor of these great men who have now all passed away, Mr. Winfrey felt that Kuumba could ensure they would always be “remembered by what they did for the Kuumba Singers.
Without a doubt, Dr. Counter will be remembered—by multiple generations of Kuumba members—for being many things to the choir: a generous patron, an invaluable adviser, a fierce advocate, and a true friend. As Haven Jones ‘15 (President ’14-’15) so rightly said in a reflection email she shared with us just days after his death, Dr. Counter “valued our community, our art, and our unabashed celebration of black culture, and he was not shy about it at all.” He truly was Kuumba’s “biggest champion at Harvard,” as LeShae Henderson ‘16 (President ‘15-‘16) said while reflecting on Dr. Counter’s relationship with Kuumba. It was Dr. Counter who made it possible for Kuumba to perform at Nelson Mandela’s honorary degree ceremony in 1998, and interact with other important cultural figures when they came to campus. Without Dr. Counter’s efforts, many of the incredible experiences Kuumba has had the honor of having throughout the years would simply not have happened.
Ultimately, as we think about Dr. Counter’s life, we are reminded of the iconic way he used to talk about the choir when introducing us to audiences at ceremonies and events. He would almost always refer to Kuumba as “the gem of Harvard” or “a true Harvard treasure.” As we survey Dr. Counter’s distinguished legacy as a world explorer, renowned scholar, trusted advisor, and vocal supporter of black arts, we can’t help but conclude that Dr. Counter was the real “gem of Harvard.” He was the “true Harvard treasure”—and he will be terribly missed.
With loving memories,
The Kuumba Singers of Harvard College Executive Board
posted: July 20, 2017
Kuumba (v., Swahili): to create.
Kuumba is a Swahili word that means to create. We take that to mean doing what we can with what we have to leave a space better than we found it. Over 45 years ago, during a time when racial tensions on this campus and in this nation were at their peak, a group of students came together to fill a void they saw on Harvard’s campus and in the Boston community. Recognizing the centrality of creativity to the human spirit, they lifted their voices together in song. What was created to address a specific moment in time has now grown into the oldest existing continuous Black organization at Harvard. Since 1970, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College have not only been creating music, but also community, connections and most of all, family. Our family has grown and changed over the last 45+ years, but it remains anchored in a place of great power – strength in our past and our hopes for the future.
Our name, Kuumba, embodies our mission and vision: to proudly proclaim and celebrate the creativity and spirituality of Black people. As I said before, Kuumba strives to do what we can with what we have to leave a space better than we inherited it. This mission permeates and motivates our performances, our community work, and the relationships we cultivate with others. Kuumba seeks to continue to honor its cultural history and the legacy created by our predecessors through the songs we sing and the community involvement that we emphasize today, as well as by fostering the atmosphere of creativity and social activism in which Kuumba was originally founded. Whether you are a prospective member, an alumnus/ae, or an avid supporter, we sincerely appreciate you visiting our site and supporting our work. And, since you’re already here, please do not hesitate in coming to any and all of the events that we publicize through our website and Facebook page (including rehearsals!).
The past year has been an incredible year of reconnection, celebration and growth. Kicking off our 46th anniversary as an organization, Kuumba spent the past year increasing community outreach and seeking to continue our mission of celebrating Black creativity and spirituality in all forms.
We kicked off the year during the fall, when we had the opportunity to sing at the W.E.B. Du Bois medal ceremony for honorees that include rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones, Carie Mae Weems, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, Mellody Hobson, Marian Wright Edelman, and the late Muhammad Ali. As the fall came and went, word spread around country regarding the state of students of color on college campuses. With the turmoil faced on these campuses around the nation (including, but not limited to the situations happening at Yale, Missouri, and Harvard Law School), Kuumba’s membership was deeply affected and sought to take action in any way they deemed fit. Members of the choir helped to organize and participate in marches and protests calling light to the racial issues facing college campuses. Kuumba as a whole also released a statement of solidarity, saying that we stand with our brothers and sisters at Yale, Missouri, and Harvard Law School (among others) as they work through their respective struggles. Our magazine, Voices, featuring the stories, drawings and poems of Kuumba’s membership, gave accounts of the feelings and thoughts of our membership through such a tumultuous time.
Next, we kicked off a historic winter with a night of joyous celebration at our annual Dr. S. Allen Counter Christmas Concert. Later that winter, despite the extensive snowfall, the choir ventured out into Boston to engage with our local community during our Wintersession Tour – singing at schools, churches, and any other place that wanted to hear the joyful sound of Kuumba. In March 2016, our Black Arts Festival, themed Fruits of Deliverance, showcased the artistic talent of the community as well as the work of young Black artists. During the festival we came together to not only celebrate the beauty of Black art, but also to reflect on the trials that Black people have overcome with help from and through the expression of the aforementioned Black art. We ended the festival with food and celebration, as well as a discussion regarding an all too often neglected art – the art of cooking, featuring the wonderfully talented Chef Theresa Nelson from Black Culinary History. A few days prior to the Black Arts Festival, we traveled down to New York for our Spring Tour to reconnect with alumni and spread the joy of Kuumba. We strengthened old connections and made a multitude of new ones as we performed for schools, churches, and other venues all throughout the five boroughs. Finally, we ended an exciting year with our 46th Annual Dean Archie C. Epps Spring Concert and a most memorable night of singing, dancing, and wonderful spoken word.
During the upcoming year, we aspire to build on all of these past successes and continue to find new ways to create and celebrate Black art. On December 2nd and 3rd of this year, we will hold our 46th Annual Dr. S. Allen Counter Christmas Concert in First Parish Church. In January of 2017, we hope to repeat the success of last year’s Wintersession Tour throughout the Boston area and reaffirm our goal of increasing community outreach. This upcoming spring, we will also present the 21st annual Dr. Walter J. Leonard Black Arts Festival, as we mentioned before, an extraordinary weekend celebration of art from the African Diaspora (if you are interested in participating in this year’s Black Arts Festival, do not hesitate to reach out!). Following this celebration, we will embark on our Spring Tour in March to spread Kuumba’s vision and mission outside of the greater Boston area (stay tuned for the announcement of the location J). Finally, we invite choir alumni and supporters to join us in Spring of 2017 for the 47th Annual Dean Archie C. Epps Spring Concert. These are just a few of the exciting opportunities you can see the Kuumba Singers perform at during the coming year – we invite you to regularly visit our “Events” tab to find out more about what we are up to and where you can expect to see us next!
During its nearly half-century of existence, the Kuumba Singers of Harvard College, has stretched its influence, deepened its connections, and grown its family to include thousands of wonderful people across this nation and around the world. Kuumba was founded on the principles of love and acceptance and continues to serve as a safe space and a source of support for its members in the Cambridge and greater Boston community. It has also served as a place for spiritual exploration, creative expression, and cultural understanding. Kuumba maintains its stance as a Black organization that strives to celebrate where we come from and where we have the potential to go.
The music we make and the songs we sing, Black music, is a manifestation of the Black spirit. It speaks to our every emotion. Black music sustains and directs our culture; it reminds us of our past, makes us mindful of the present, and gives us hope and guidance for the future.
Understanding exactly what Kuumba is cannot be achieved through reading any amount of words on a page; rather, it must be experienced first-hand. We encourage you to take on this challenge by not only exploring our website and music, but also by witnessing Kuumba first-hand through our concerts, rehearsals, or gigs. We hope that you will support our creative efforts to grow the Kuumba community (Kuumunity J) and to change the space around us, leaving each place we lift our voices at, at least a little bit better than the way we found it.