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About the Ray Charles Program

filming documentary


The mission of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture is to research, document, disseminate, preserve, and celebrate African American culture and foodways in the South. New Orleans sits at the historical and cultural intersection of diverse groups with distinct and recognizable pasts. This program aims to understand how African, Caribbean, European, and American cultures coalesced to create a culture that is uniquely African American. The Ray Charles Program takes a deeper look at how African American culture is portrayed and taught in an effort to not only preserve that culture, but allow our students to take ownership of it as well.


The majority of students involved in the Ray Charles Program are from the humanities, especially film, mass communications, English, and theater. Scholarships ranging from $500 to $5,000 are offered to humanities majors with a 2.5 GPA or above every year. However, we accept students from all disciplines and work to incorporate the understanding of material culture into every core subject. Throughout the program, students will have access to the Material Culture Library as well as resources that advance their personal and professional careers, such as mentorship opportunities with local leaders and partnership opportunities with local businesses.


What Is Material Culture?


red beans and rice Jeremy ShineMaterial culture refers to the physical objects, resources, and spaces that people use to define their culture. Literature, food, art, film, music, and clothing are all just a small sliver of what represents material culture. To understand material culture, students must develop a firm grasp of African American history and how our culture has formed and evolved over the years.


Why Create a Program Focused on Material Culture?


The vision of the Dillard University Ray Charles Program in African American Material Culture is to be the premier center for culinary and cultural research in the South. This program is the first of its kind at any HBCU or any American university. Just as Ray Charles himself stressed the ownership of his own music, the Ray Charles Program teaches students the importance of owning and profiting from their own culture. Students in the program walk away with a holistic understanding of the food industry as well as other industries, plus the relevance and value of African American culture as a whole.


The Ray Charles Program is more than just an academic study of material culture. Here, students are able to work on projects that support their majors while earning immediate life and career experiences. The aim of this program is not to view material culture as a singular idea, but rather tie material culture into all fields of academic study offered at Dillard University.


New Orleans Material Culture

Mardi Gras Indians (Black Masking Indians)


Like the Ray Charles Program itself, the Mardi Gras Indians formed as a way to preserve and take ownership of African American culture. New Orleans’ Mardi Gras Indian tribes trace back to the original African tribes that were brought to the U.S. through the slave trade. Today the Indian tribes are best known for both their elaborate, handmade suits and rhythmic music, which represent their traditional African ancestral roots. As the Mardi Gras Indians became more ubiquitous within New Orleans and started receiving national and international press coverage, they worked hard to maintain their culture while spreading their traditions. The Ray Charles Program has worked closely with different Mardi Gras Indian tribes to document, learn, and preserve their special contributions to African American material culture in New Orleans.


New Orleans Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs


New Orleans’ Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs trace their roots back to the middle of the 19th century when newly freed African Americans formed what was then known as “benevolent societies.” These benevolent societies established a way for people of little means to pool their money and cover the costs of healthcare and burial services. Traditionally, these groups would play European- and African-inspired music at their members’ funerals in what would later be known as jazz funerals. Later on, as the importance of music and community grew among these groups, the benevolent societies transformed to become Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs. Today, these clubs play an important role in New Orleans African American Material Culture. Their colorful attires and upbeat music can be seen and heard in second line parades throughout the city. The Ray Charles Program works to study these Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs as well as preserve the existing culture of these groups.





2601 Gentilly Boulevard
New Orleans, Louisiana 70122

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