A Time to Speak?

The last few weeks have weighed on my heart. Seeing yet another black man killed by a cop on one hand, and on the other hearing from many people how more white people are killed by police and this isn’t really a problem. Yet almost every single person of color I know has personal stories of things that have happened to them or immediate family members – of teen boys being followed by police for taking a walk in their own neighborhoods because someone new thought they looked suspicious, or black members of a band my husband was in tell each other to take care while driving home because everyone knows you don’t get caught DWB (driving while black) in Indiana. I heard a neighbor anxiously question why “those people” were in our neighborhood when a black family visited another neighbor. With my own ears I’ve heard many people make assumptions that a black person was “probably” guilty of a crime.

So I don’t buy the idea that there is no longer much racism, and I don’t buy the idea that there are no problems with a system which allow racist and violent cops to remain on the force.

I’m told that I have to speak up.

Many have said that if individuals are not speaking up then they are racist. Even people I consider to be reasonable thinkers have posted things online that say if people don’t participate in protests then they are complicit in racism. Well, I’m not going to go to a protest. I’m just not that person. I went to a March for Life once, when I was 13, and determined to never go to another rally of any kind. I don’t even like crowds when I’m having fun. And right now, it is personally disheartening to see thousands of people permitted to gather for a protest, regardless of any legitimacy of their complaints, when all my work has been cut off for who knows how long because of the ban on large groups (and the increased virus risk that still remains from those gatherings!)

I’ve heard from many in the music world that we need to use our art to make a difference. On one hand, I get it. Art can be very powerful in communicating a message. On the other hand, it could sound trite if everyone decides that racism is the topic du jour. Will it really make a difference if I write about what is happening *now* when it takes so long to complete a piece and then get it performed? By the time that day comes it may be stale. Perhaps only those who can authentically write about such topics using electronic music and digital media, or chamber groups that meet social distancing standards, and get it out quickly should do so. I am all for addressing topics like injustice – ideas that are timeless – in art. But that doesn’t necessarily have to be done NOW.

Besides, I already wrote a piece; it just hasn’t been performed yet, and I don’t know when it will be. Back in very early 2020 the focus of the year was celebrating the 100th anniversary of women gaining the right to vote. Ensembles all around the country were making music written by or about women the theme for their concerts. In response to a call for scores, I wrote a choral piece I titled, “The Truth Will Prevail” which uses quotes of Sojourner Truth for the text, combined with a line from the traditional spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine.”

The text goes like this:

"Life is a hard battle anyway,
But if we laugh and sing a little
As we fight the good fight of freedom
It makes it all go easier."
"I will not let my life's light 
Be determined by the darkness around me."
"I feel safe in the midst of my enemies
For the truth is all-powerful
And it will prevail." (Sojourner Truth)
"I will not hide it under a bushel, no!
I'm gonna let it shine!" (This Little Light of Mine)

Whether Sojourner Truth’s words were solely about women’s rights or also anti-slavery sentiments, they were a response to oppression. The piece includes some blue notes and ostinati as one might expect in a piece partly inspired by African-American music. It is a heart-felt piece, one that I really connected to on many levels. I have listened to ragtime, blues, jazz, Negro spirituals, Black Gospel music and other “Black” music from the time I was a little girl. I studied jazz piano, played saxophone in the jazz band and played piano in the pit for “The Wiz” in high school. “This Little Light of Mine” is just as much a part of my church culture as it is in the Black church, except I didn’t learn about its connection to the Civil Rights movement in Sunday School. I can’t remove all that from my musical heritage even though I am white.

As I sent out the piece I wondered if I would be accused (silently, of course) of cultural appropriation. Who am I, as some white woman, to take Sojourner Truth’s words, African-American musical sounds, and a spiritual for my own artistic use?

It’s a bit difficult to know how to address the issue of racism in my art.

I’ve heard it’s not enough to have non-white friends. Not even the black girls who lived down the street when I was five who taught me how to roller-skate and jump double dutch? (Sorry, it was so long ago I have forgotten their names.) Or Brandy, one of my best friends from elementary school, who was Cherokee? Or Lucia who played four-square with me? Or Preymalitha who was my first friend upon moving to Rhode Island and remained friends with me until we graduated high school, who had such a beautiful Indian name but couldn’t decide if she wanted to use a name no one could correctly spell or pronounce or stick with her English name. I cannot remove those friendships from the formation of who I am today.

Is it not enough that I began listening to music from all over the world in high school – and haven’t stopped? I even introduced my kids to it and still regularly go to concerts sponsored by ethnomusicology departments at local universities. Is it not enough that I brought my kids into as many possible situations as I could where they were interacting with people outside our “demographic” and teaching them that all people must be treated with dignity, regardless of their color or status, simply because they are human beings made in the image of God? Is it not enough that I have modeled an open mind (not perfectly, of course, but with conscientiousness) and have even let myself be influenced by different points of view?

No, it seems I must *say something.* Well, here is my statement: I hate racism, and I hate hate; I hate inequality; I hate injustice; I hate death. But it’s not enough to hold a sign or to march or to speak up or to give or even to make art if our hearts are not softened with love. If I feel stirred to address issues with my art, I aim to have the courage to do so. But most of all I hope to model and inspire love.

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