History class inspires student’s heartfelt hymn on slavery and abolition

Listen to Muna Uzodike’s hymn here:


Pre-med major Munachimso “Muna” Uzodike has a copyrighted song to show for her studies

Most students don’t sign up for a history course expecting to compose a hymn.

Munachi Uzodike wrote the hymn “I Will Abstain" for a class on the Atlantic slave trade. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Munachi Uzodike wrote the hymn “I Will Abstain” for a class on the Atlantic slave trade. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Martel College senior Munachimso “Muna” Uzodike certainly wasn’t anticipating the assignment when she enrolled in Fighting the Atlantic Slave Trade, an innovative class taught by Rice assistant professor Daniel Domingues. Yet Uzodike can now claim a copyrighted song on her resume, a plaintive ballad called “I Will Abstain.”

A role-playing element was crucial to the design of Domingues’s course, which he developed while teaching at the University of Missouri in 2015. And unlike most history courses, this one has students reading and interacting not with textbooks, but with primary sources.

“In a textbook, what readers get is already an interpretation,” Domingues said. “And it’s part of our job here to provide them with these primary sources and to guide students in interpreting them, because that’s one skill we provide here as a department: critical thinking.”

Until the beginning of the 19th century, most people in the world lived under some kind of bondage, with slavery being perhaps the most extreme form. Through determination and perseverance, a diverse group of abolitionists, mostly based in Britain, were able to persuade the world’s most powerful nation to end the trans-Atlantic slave trade.

For their final projects, students summed up a semester’s worth of reading by writing speeches meant for delivery before the Female Society for Birmingham in 1825.

“Their characters are by then about 60 years old,” Domingues said. “They had to reflect on their journey in order to inspire the work of — and give suggestions on how to cope with — the adversities of waging a social activist campaign to the society’s ladies, who were intending to tackle the broader issue of abolishing slavery as opposed to just the slave trade.”

Different perspectives

Here’s how the class works: Domingues’s students adopt pseudonyms at the beginning of the semester and develop their characters over a series of assignments designed to encourage reflection and creativity. For instance, a student can opt to write a standard college paper after reading a series of abolitionist diary entries or, as an alternative, respond with a poem, sermon, pamphlet, sculpture or some other artistic undertaking.

“In a textbook, what readers get is already an interpretation,” said Daniel Domingues. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“In a textbook, what readers get is already an interpretation,” said Daniel Domingues. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“It affords them the ability to see things from different perspectives,” Domingues said.

Uzodike chose the character of a preacher’s wife working with an abolitionist society in late 18th-century England. As the daughter of pastors who run a church in The Woodlands, it was in some ways a natural persona for her to assume. Yet it still required a shift in perspective, to that of a woman living in a foreign society some 200 years ago.

“You’re not just reflecting, but you’re kind of living their experience,” Uzodike said. “It’s another dimension of learning, and I definitely haven’t experienced that in other classes before.”

For an assignment on abstaining from slave produce such as sugar, which abolitionists encouraged as a means of rejecting the practice of slavery, Uzodike tried to imagine what her character would do after returning from an especially charged talk on the topic.

“The character is the wife of an evangelical pastor, but she writes as well,” Uzodike said. “So I felt like socially she probably wouldn’t have been writing a sermon but a song — something that is meaningful and that she relates to on a faith level, also as a display of her love for writing and her passion toward the movement.”

Further inspiration came from two primary sources: a 1788 sermon preached by Thomas Bradshaw titled “The Slave Trade Inconsistent with Reason and Religion” and a first-hand account written in 1787 by Ottobah Cugoano, an emancipated slave living in England. Together with the group Sons of Africa, Cugoano wrote to the royal family, aristocrats and leading politicians to condemn slavery and campaign for its abolition, noting that he knew “several ladies in England who refuse to drink sugar in their tea, because of the cruel injuries done to the Black People employed in the culture of it at the West-Indies.”

Creativity key to ‘human-ness’

Songwriting and singing have long been a focus of Uzodike’s own life, too, even as she works towards medical school. Last year, the kinesiology major with a minor in African studies spent every weekend driving to her parents’ church to lead congregational singing. Her fellow Martelians and members of the Rice African Student Association, which she served last year as vice president, know her as the girl with the golden voice; at a 2016 Africayé event Uzodike performed “Jailer” in the Rice Memorial Center’s Grand Hall with student group Fresh Jollof and she regularly sings with a cappella group the Rice Philharmonics.

“Being able to express creativity is very key to the human-ness of everyone,” Uzodike said. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

“Being able to express creativity is very key to the human-ness of everyone,” Uzodike said. (Photo by Jeff Fitlow)

Domingues was blown away by the hymn Uzodike turned in for her assignment, a well-researched song exposing the atrocities of the slave trade and admonishing that “loves of sweets aren’t worth a tarnished soul.”

“With honor I will fight / Detaching from the curse of greed / For I will not partake of blood-stained goods,” it begins, before reaching a chorus that echoes throughout: “Though man may sell / And markets swell / By God, I will abstain.”

With her permission, Domingues played the hymn for others, who agreed Uzodike’s wistful words and simple, stripped-down melody were inspiring. He encouraged her to apply for a copyright on the song. That might be enough for an entire semester’s worth of work, but Uzodike is taking more away from the course than legal protection for her creation.

“I’ve worked with primary sources before, but I think what makes this unique is that you’re using a primary source to do creative work, which I think is really special,” Uzodike said. “I appreciate having this avenue, having that space to write, to create, to sing, and to have it be seen as academic work — not just, ‘Oh, you’re doing things for funsies, you made a drawing!’”

Having such an outlet has been especially gratifying as a STEM major, Uzodike said. Though much of her time is spent in the Wiess School of Natural Sciences and the School of Social Sciences for her pre-med work and focus on health disparities, she believes her humanities classes are equipping her to become a physician who will approach patients first and foremost as people.

“Being able to express creativity is very key to the human-ness of everyone,” Uzodike said.

Moreover, the smaller size of her humanities courses — Fighting the Atlantic Slave Trade has only six students, who’ve grown close with each other and Domingues over the semester — means Uzodike has been able to interact with her professors in unexpectedly meaningful ways.

“I’ve written papers before and professors thought they were good, but this is a bit different because it’s not just analyzing something — this is something I’ve created,” Uzodike said. She prizes what she calls Domingues’s “really kind and supportive feedback” and his encouragement to copyright her hymn.

“All this stuff I never would have done on my own,” she said. “Dr. D is just great. That’s what I like about having a humanities minor even though I’m otherwise a STEM student. It’s been really nice to have some of that more intimate feedback from professors.”

Listen to Muna Uzodike’s hymn here:


About Katharine Shilcutt

Katharine Shilcutt is a media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.