The holiday gift-giving season may be over for the general population, but for Donald Harrison and Cherice Harrison-Nelson, the gift of a good education comes year-round.
At the 2009 Best of the Beat Awards, both Harrison siblings will be honored for their educational efforts in the fields of music and indigenous culture.
Harrison, known for his legendary jazz saxophone skills, got into music early because of his family. “My parents had so much music at home,” Harrison says. “There was always music playing in the house.” But it wasn’t until his time spent in New York that he realized he wanted to teach.
“When I went to New York, I got a different idea of what music was,” Harrison says. “I wanted to show students from firsthand instead of from a book. I wanted to pass down firsthand experience from great musicians. Great jazz musicians. I realized I could pass down information to help young kids get a job in the [music] industry.”
While living in The Big Apple, Harrison began teaching one very famous neighbor.
“I made him more aggressive,” Harrison recalls of working with the late Notorious B.I.G. “We worked on two main things: enunciation, and his delivery and ability to tell a story.”
During a recent stint in New York, Harrison met up with an up-and-coming engineer, Darius “Deezle” Harrison, and worked with him to “take his music to another level.” Since their meeting, Darius has gone on to produce four tracks including “Lollipop” and “Mrs. Officer” for Lil Wayne’s Tha Carter III, which garnered eight Grammy nominations this year.
Harrison is comfortable working with the younger generation, as can be seen in the mentoring he used to do with the Tipitina’s Foundation’s Intern Program, where he met Conun Pappas, one third of the Bridge Trio, which currently tours with him as his backing band.
“[The Intern Program] was a great experience,” Harrison says. “The students were very serious and I was happy to give them my knowledge. They were very diligent and didn’t want to take breaks. They were really trying to learn stuff.”
But Harrison wasn’t always the teacher; he too was a student.
Both he and his sister, Cherice, learned all the traditions, songs and rituals associated with the Mardi Gras Indians, from their father, the late Donald Harrison, Sr., Big Chief of Guardians of the Flame.
Now, they are the Big Chief and Big Queen of the Congo Nation Afro-New Orleans Cultural Group, a new Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and both siblings are passing the traditions on to the next generation. “I think its getting strong again,” Harrison says about young people’s interest in the Mardi Gras Indian customs. “The guys really love it.”
“[Being a Mardi Gras Indian is] A testament to the strength of the human spirit, and resiliency to maintain this tradition and that in spite of everything, something so deep inside of them calls them to continue to do this,” Harrison-Nelson says. “We are spiritual first responders. The cornerstone of maintaining where African American reside. Those things along with education will build back our community.”
Nelson, a leader in her own right, has been teaching the traditions of the Mardi Gras Indians along with mother, Herreast Johnson Harrison, for years in and out of Louisiana. Through the Big Chief and Big Queen Book Club, Harrison-Nelson has linked cultural practice and literacy, celebrating Mardi Gras Indians and making them a force for educational good, and for nearly 20 years at Oretha Castle Haley Elementary School, she stressed enhancing the language arts and bringing cultural indigenous knowledge to the classroom.
“Each child needs an individual education plan, and it was most important of all to me to make that happen,” Nelson says.
She created the “Haley Story Quilt Project” in 1996 in which Nelson, a sixth generation knitter, would encourage students to tell their families’ stories through either poetry, song, or dance, and would showcase it by creating a quilt of pictorial descriptions. Even though the project had concluded, its concept proved most helpful in the aftermath of Katrina.
In 2005, a teacher at the Marjorie Elementary School in Kenner contacted Harrison-Nelson and her mother to help students express what had happened to them post-Katrina. They asked the students to write about the preparation for the storm, where they were during the storm, and the aftermath. Finally, they asked the children to “envision a world that they wanted for themselves,” and they drew pictures that went along with each story. They then chose which story they wanted to be in a book and what picture they wanted on a quilt.
“We had to confront what happened,” Harrison says. “It was really phenomenal because some children really wanted people to know what happened, so they picked those disturbing images of their houses and rooms being torn apart and the devastation.”
Harrison-Nelson was fired while on leave during Katrina (illegally, she feels, and she is still working to resolve this issue), but she doesn’t want the “adult drama” around her to hinder a child’s education.
“It’s not about me,” Nelson says. “It’s about getting each child the appropriate education they need to grow. Not every lesson is best learned from a binder.”