The University of Southern Maine could easily have made its “Becoming American” program a straightforward history lecture. The core of the program, which was presented on Wednesday evening at Hannaford Hall, was a compellingly detailed talk, “W. E. B. Du Bois and the Meaning of Race and Citizenship in the Jim Crow Era,” delivered by Leroy M. Rowe, an assistant professor of black history and politics at the university.

But the university and Rowe saw the wisdom in presenting this large and important topic in a multidisciplinary coat. Much in the way Du Bois included poetry and what he called “sorrow songs” at the start of each chapter in his “The Souls of Black Folk,” this event interspersed short poems, read by students at the university, and spirituals, performed by the USM Chamber Singers under the direction of Nicolás Alberto Dosman, between sections of Rowe’s talk. As a coda of sorts, Joyce Taylor Gibson, the dean of the university’s Lewiston-Auburn College, recalled some of her experiences growing up in Mississippi during segregation.

Actually, the event was somewhat more expansive than its title suggested. Rowe did not confine himself to the Jim Crow era. His talk covered nearly the full scope of the African-American experience, starting with the earliest days of slavery, moving through the Civil War and Reconstruction, with quick explorations of several now-obscure 19th century Supreme Court cases that essentially nullified the promises of equality and the rights of citizenship promised to African-Americans in the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

He also referred to current issues – high incarceration rates and shootings by police, among them – as did Dosman, in his brief introductions to the choral works. Dosman also offered the interesting observation that the lyrics of many spirituals end in death – that, he noted, it is only after you die that you will be free.

It is possible, even probable, that the composers of these pieces had sociological metaphors in mind. Du Bois certainly held that view. But spirituals are religious works, so it is not surprising that they reflect the longing for a place in the afterlife that is a central part of most religious traditions and that is reflected in other sacred music as well. And there are spirituals that look at aspects of faith other than the afterlife.

That said, if you look at spirituals that focus on something other than the release of death – for example, “Ezekiel Saw the Wheel” (which the choir did not perform) – you find other clear connections to the African-American experience: Ezekiel’s vision of Divine symmetry is evoked in the chorus, but the verses speak of Moses leading the Israelites from slavery to freedom.

Mr. Dosman led his 28-voice choir in only four pieces, but they were enough to put a spotlight on its strengths and weaknesses. “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” was presented in an unusually slow, reflective version that showed off the ensemble’s opulent sound in closely harmonized music. An equally silken reading of “Steal Away” reinforced that impression. (Both arrangements were uncredited.)

Two livelier readings – “Rockin’ Jerusalem,” in an arrangement by Damon Dandridge, and “Signs of Judgment,” as arranged by Mark Butler – demanded greater contrapuntal finesse, as well as more energetic projection, and Dosman was reasonably successful in drawing those elements from his singers. But the weaknesses, mostly at the choir’s bottom end, which lacked the deep, rounded sound these pieces need, were more apparent here.

Still, it’s early in the semester, and performance perfection was not the point here. The music added an important dimension and perspective to the event, as well as a few moments to digest and reflect upon the facts, figures and commentary that Rowe presented.

Allan Kozinn is a former music critic and culture writer for The New York Times who lives in Portland. He can be contacted at:

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Twitter: kozinn

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