The Days Of What Had Happened Was.
Liner Notes: The World and Me. 4/12
I started writing this column after my daughter’s keen criticism of the entertainment lineup I presented last year during Black History Month. I’d arranged a home film festival, with entries chosen to be delightful yet impactful from over 100 years of African American cinema. This greatly wearied her; there was too much black and white, as many of the films and clips were classic monochrome, but also the underlying thematic unity of an ever-present political maelstrom regarding skin tone and social class. That too.
Ten year old people have astonishing insight, and without this discussion I would never have set about trodding this path, embracing Black history in a personal way, where what’s happened already is “history” and I, quite legitimately flexing a rich brown which PANTONE has recognized as 18-1028 (the “Emperador”), am Black.
Thus my history, as that of every Black person, is Black history. It’s not just the giant events of the past, but a legacy being built every day, all around us, and this year I’m taking care to balance essential tales of overwhelming circumstance with those of challenging yet manageable personal incident. With whimsy. There should be more Black Whimsy.
So this year we’re focusing less on images. Again, there is an essential story that must be told and we are lucky to have evidence of the extraordinary individuals associated with our progress and culture. But I’m writing a ballet, right? So I thought we’d focus more on music. There was extensive research. Well, there was an enthusiastic Wikipedia dive. The initial list was pretty good. Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington, and Count Basie from my grandfather, who took the time to share his love of jazz with me and gave me my first real record, a 78 rpm recording of “April in Paris”. Then Marion Anderson, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and Grace Jones because, y’know, awesome.
The ability to find these recordings without searching endlessly through a card catalog at a library somewhere still amazes me, and I’m thankful for that, and incredibly I discovered people I wish I’d known years ago. I recently discovered names like Florence Price and William Grant Still who were Black classical composers because new recordings of their work have been popping up, which is very exciting for me because as a kid I thought it might be just me thinking about oboes and harps. (I mean, I grew up in Kansas City, a little bit isolated from any underground artist movement…my mom probably wouldn’t have let me stay out that late anyway.) It was actually my Grandmother’s love for Tchaikovsky that served as my main historical through line to this music (I’ll tell you that story a little later).
But how surprised was I to find the name Joseph Bologne Chevalier De Saint Georges.
Joseph. Bologne. Chevalier De Saint Georges.
Champion fencer, classical composer, virtuoso violinist, and conductor of the leading symphony orchestra in Paris in the mid 1700s.
Now I could go way into this but you’ve got a lot going on. Let me just say three things quickly:
1. there is a painting of him that is in no way like the painting of Beethoven we’re all familiar with where when people said “Oh, but Beethoven is Black!” we all went, “…but IS he?” Joseph Bologne Chevalier De Saint Georges is not only rocking the 18-1028 but he is straight out of central casting for the next Bridgerton.
2. Somebody should make a movie about all this OH WAIT THEY JUST DID! Honestly, I’d never heard of him before, yet there just happens to be a big budget film coming out this year telling his story. Miracle.
3. On the internet, directly underneath his name are the words “The Black Mozart”.
Not to winge, but that’s the heaviest part of these 28 days for me; the struggle to be recognized as more than the variant of a lighter skinned original. Black history presented as separate from Just History. There is an unimplied implication of opposition to a main timeline that we are a branch of rather than a root feeding into.
I’ve been told a great deal of times that I did not “know my place”, or that the most I could achieve was to be “the first Black” something, always following or imitating. Many of the musicians and artist on this year’s listening list “knew their place” in the world but actively ignored it, and had the audacity to change not themselves, but the world around them until it was indeed their own. In many cases attention wasn’t initially focused on their achievement at all, but their Nerve, as each of them were asked the question: “How dare you?” and their art was their answer.
I want this month to offer my daughter strategies to see herself as a Black person not in opposition, but invention, with all history as a story she has the right to tell.
So as we’re listening to Prince, Joan Armatrading, Shirley Bassey, Jon Batiste, and even the recordings of her great-grandmother, she should understand that not only is this specific music associated with her, but she is heir to all music. She is experiencing the world, all the time, and she is Black, all the time, and that is how Black history works; not in opposition, but as a uniquely independent lens through which life is seen and reflected, often in powerful art, which she can someday create as a new guardian of this cultural audacity.
And if she ever gets asked the question, “How dare you?!?” she should respond with,
“Well, I dare pretty well. But y’know, I practice a lot. Thanks for asking.”