It doesn't matter what your spiritual or religious alignment is, whether you believe in heaven, hell, or some vast nothingness: Mary D. Williams will rattle you to your core as soon as she starts singing.
Her preferred oeuvre is African-American spirituals, songs like "Oh Freedom," "Meetin at the Building," "This Little Light of Mine," and "We Shall Not Be Moved." Enslaved people wrote many of these songs as a means of communication and comfort. During the Civil Rights movement, they once again became an important piece of armor against oppression. Williams's powerful contralto needs no amplification; she can floor you from across an auditorium as she sings about faith and freedom.
But Williams shares her gift with an extra twist: her music is a balm, but she backs it up with history lessons about the origins of her songs. The result is a necessary immersive educational experience.
Williams's path to being a professor and performer is as unique as her current occupation. She grew up in Garner, steeped in traditional African-American spiritual music at church and at home. Her father sang in a group called The Dependable Quintet, and her family spent their Sunday afternoons following him to performances after church.
When Williams was a fourteen-year-old student at East Garner Middle School, a teacher busted her for goofing off singing in the hallway. But she also quickly recruited Williams to the school's choral program. Her teacher taught her to sing Italian opera in a soprano—Williams couldn't read music, so she learned songs by ear, one note at a time, as her teacher played the piano. But in the gospel choir at church, Williams could sing however she wanted.
"I don't want to sound like the original artist. I want my own interpretation in a particular song, how I interpret it emotionally, and I want you to have that experience with me," Williams says.
Though music was a constant presence in her life, it wasn't Williams's main gig for many years. After turning down a scholarship at Brevard University to stay close to her family during a tumultuous period, Williams worked at Hudson Belk and, later, the Department of Social Services. She got married and started a family, singing wherever she was invited.
"Singing was my salvation, in terms of my relationship with Christ, my relationship in church, my marriage," Williams says. "It was a way of me being counseled because of lyrics of songs that touched me. It was a way of me exposing myself on several levels."
Williams got plenty of invitations—not through any agent, manager, or publicist, but all via word of mouth. Naturally, more and more folks took notice of Williams's tremendous voice. She met international gospel stars like Yolanda Adams and Kirk Franklin and appeared multiple times as a featured new artist on BET's long-running Bobby Jones Gospel program. But she kept encountering the same question as her star rose: Why didn't she sing contemporary gospel? Williams says that newer gospel never sat well with her. It didn't fit her vocal style, and she didn't feel the same deep emotional connection to it that she did with her favorite spirituals.
Around 2005, Williams recalls, she was invited to open an author's lecture with a short performance. She picked up a copy of the author's book and quickly recognized several of the songs mentioned in the text—it would be an easy gig, she remembers thinking. The book was Blood Done Sign My Name, the award-winning historical autobiography by Timothy Tyson. After Tyson finished his lecture, he asked Williams to keep in touch; she gave him her phone number. Soon, Tyson was inviting her to join him at more of his lectures. The two hit it off, and Williams suddenly realized that she'd found her niche.
"That's when I found my place, as far as my voice not just being an instrument of entertainment," she says. "It became a tool of academia. It became a principal partner in content coupled with artistry."
Williams and Tyson worked together to develop a formal course called The South in Black and White, which they've taught together at Duke for over a decade. The course is essentially a history of racism and activism in the South, covering slavery and continuing through the Civil Rights movement and beyond. Williams uses music to add cultural context to lessons, as well as to highlight how music shaped social change in the United States.
As singer-scholar Bernice Johnson Reagon wrote in the introduction to her 2001 book, If You Don't Go, Don't Hinder Me: The African American Sacred Song Tradition, spiritual songs written by enslaved people were often about physically leaving a place and heading elsewhere: to Biblical promised lands like Jordan and Canaan or literally for the North or Canada. The songs were passed down orally through churches for generations. As the Civil Rights movement took shape, the old songs began to have new applications.
"When that same song transitioned and was applied to the Civil Rights movement, it was talking about change in social situations. They're not going anywhere," Williams says. "The music was a force to be reckoned with. It embodied a group of people that were in the same situation at the same time, and the music strengthened that community."
As they were among enslaved people fighting for freedom from bondage, songs were rallying points, affirmations, and consolations for those fighting racial oppression a century later. At training sessions held by the NAACP, The Congress of Racial Equity, and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, participants learned these songs as an important tool of resistance.
When she teaches, Williams opens each class with singing, encouraging students to stand and join in. It's a crucial part of her praxis as an educator. It's a learning experience, but it also makes for a smooth segue into difficult conversations about the South's violent racial history.
"We wanted the students to not just hear the text, but we wanted them to experience it. What we really worked to do was to allow that music to rush over them," Williams says.
As Williams continued to build her stature in academia, she realized that she wanted to formally equip herself with the tools of the trade. Though she knew the history of all of the music she was singing, she wanted to get her official ticket into academic circles. She enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill, earning a degree in American studies with a double minor in history and the African-American diaspora in 2015. She's now working on earning a master's degree in the school's folklore program.
"I want to be heard as a scholar. I don't want to be heard as just this black girl that came out of the church, and now she's over here at Duke," Williams explains. "I need that ticket to show you that there's more to me than the voice, and that there's scholarship that is tied to what I'm singing and talking to you about."
Williams says that, as long as there are injustices in the world, the songs she sings and their attendant lessons will stay relevant. Civil rights activist Ella Baker once said that those who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes, which Reagon adapted into "Ella's Song" for Sweet Honey in the Rock. For Williams's part, she'll keep singing and shining her light wherever she goes.