Blogs > Jim Loewen > My Cheating Memoirs #3: Ladysmith Black Mambazo Plays Vermont

Jun 20, 2017

My Cheating Memoirs #3: Ladysmith Black Mambazo Plays Vermont

Sociologist James W. Loewen is the author of Lies My Teacher Told Me.

             When I taught sociology at the University of Vermont (UVM), one course I offered repeatedly was "Race Relations." It had several requirements. One I called "Get Out of the White Cocoon." Students had to attend ten hours of events run by or featuring someone from a race different from their own. White students could go hear a jazz concert, a Native American speaker, even watch the new Spike Lee movie (back in his heyday).

            After each event, they wrote in their journals. "Summarize the event, for those who did not attend," I suggested. "Tell some important 'take-away' you had from the event. Or, depending on your reaction, critique at least one idea presented at the event."

            During the semester, my TAs and I suggested dozens of events from which students could choose. That might surprise you, since Vermont is not near a major black population center, but UVM drew a good share of important and diverse lecturers. As well, Burlington is often an early station on national tours for music groups, particularly those that had just played Boston or Montreal.

            One semester Ladysmith Black Mambazo came to the fine arts series. (If you don't know this fabulous a capella male singing group from Ladysmith Township in South Africa, go here right now. You can come back in a few minutes.) I said the event would count toward the "white cocoon" requirement. I mentioned that they had participated on Paul Simon's famous "Graceland" album and had also done a recent music commercial for LifeSavers candy.

            Two girls (the term used at UVM for female students!) who were best friends each attended the Ladysmith Black Mambazo concert. Or so their journals told me when next I collected them. "Lizzie" wrote, "I went to hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo. I was excited, because I liked them on Paul Simon's "Graceland" album and also enjoyed their recent music commercial for LifeSavers. The concert was very good." In terms of its review of the event, this was the shortest journal entry I had ever received. "Betsy" wrote a little more: "I went to hear Ladysmith Black Mambazo. The ladies wore beautiful dresses, and they were excellent on their instruments."

            Neither had attended, of course, but I needed to prove that. So I asked both to come in and see me, Betsy at 3PM the next afternoon, Lizzie at 3:10PM. To misdirect them, I asked both to bring in their most recent hour-exam.

            Betsy walked into my office. I asked her what kind of instruments the ladies played. She looked like a deer in the headlights, but she wasn't stupid — she knew they were from Africa. So, "Drums," she replied.

            I thought about asking about their dresses but decided she had twisted in the wind long enough. "Betsy," I said gently, "they don't have any instruments. They aren't ladies, either. Ladysmith Black Mambazo is all male, and they sing a capella. Do you know what that means?"

            "Yes," she said.

            "Ladysmith is a place," I went on.

            "I didn't go," Betsy said, softly.

            "I know," I said. "I've never had anyone lie in their journals before. I'll have to think about what to do about it."

            I escorted her out of my office and admitted Lizzie. She proved a tougher nut to crack. She had learned that Ladysmith Black Mambazo was all-male. So I read her terse "concert review" to her. "Lizzie," I said, "In ten years of teaching this course, always with the White Cocoon requirement, this is the shortest review of an event I've ever gotten. It's content free! Can you tell me more about the concert? What did they sing about? What difference did their songs make to you?" 

            "To tell the truth," she replied, four words that had nothing to do with what she next said, "I couldn't stay. I only heard about fifteen minutes."

            Aside from her claiming two hours of the requirement for a fifteen-minute stay, this statement was not credible. Tickets cost $24, and this back in 1994! Pretty soon Lizzie, too, agreed that she had never gone at all.

            I was disgusted. These students had lied in their journals. Somehow that struck me as showing even less integrity than cheating on an exam. For one thing, I had never required them to attend Ladysmith Black Mambazo. There were many ways to fulfill the ten hour requirement. It was hardly onerous. On the contrary, years later, students would stop me on the street to thank me for the requirement, not just on account of race relations, but also because it got them into the habit of going to events on campus and in the community.

            So I turned both students in to UVM's Vice President in Charge of Cheating. I forget what he made them do. But I never forgot "The ladies wore beautiful dresses."

 Copyright James W. Loewen

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