by Anthony R. Green
Happy Monday, BIBA readers! Yesterday was the Oscars – the 91st Academy Awards ceremony. With the criticism and hashtag “Oscars So White”, I (along with many others) was curious to see the decisions of the Academy last night. While this blog is not to talk about the merits of the decisions, it is with sincerity that I congratulate all those who were awarded, especially Green Book, Mahershala Ali, Regina King, Spike Lee, Ruth E. Carter, Hannah Beachler, Alfonso Cuaron, all of the people of color who were behind this winners, and all of the people of color who I did not mention as winners and as nominations. Of special note, I am glad that Don Shirley’s story has entered the main stream, and sincerely hope that the anomaly of the Black pianist who happens to play classical music becomes (again) an accepted image. A blog about the genius of Shirley will come in future BIBA posts.
What this blog IS about is the first Black Oscar Winner: Hattie McDaniel. According to Wikipedia, Ms. McDaniel was the youngest of 13 children, whose parents (former enslaved human beings) were a singer of religious music (mother) and a soldier in the civil war (father). Born in 1893 in Wichita, Kansas, she eventually moves with her family to Colorado. Some of her siblings also pursued acting careers with success. Before acting, Ms. McDaniel worked as a singer-songwriter, recording artist, radio artist, entertainer, and more, often taking odd jobs as a cook or a maid to make ends meet. Her maid experience led to many maid roles in her early acting career, but her hard work, personal skills, and ability to “steal the scene” led to her gaining more credited roles, more important roles, and gaining friendships with some of the leading actors, actresses and Hollywood personalities of her day.
Her role in Gone With the Wind was highly sought after. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt wanted her own maid to play the role, but Ms. McDaniel – who showed up to the audition in a maid’s uniform – was confident that she would get the part. As you can imagine, the language of the movie coupled with the implied morality of the movie was a significant problem for audiences of all races, one side claiming that McDaniel acquiesced to racist stereotypes and tropes, the other side claiming that Mammy’s close relationship to Scarlett was not realistic. Outside of the movie, Ms. McDaniel was victim to the segregation policies of the time; she could not attend the official premiere of the movie in Atlanta because of segregation laws, and she was segregated at the 12th Academy Awards ceremony of 1940, sitting alone with her escort and her agent. The official hotel hosting Oscar guests also had a No Blacks policy, which they temporarily ignored as a favor to Ms. McDaniel. Many in the Black community gave Ms. McDaniel quite a harsh reaction after her role and her win, but it is indisputable today that her win was a significant step forward for Black actors and actresses, and other artists dreaming of receiving an Academy Award.
Thank you, Hattie McDaniel, for paving the way for Sidney Poitier, Denzel Washington, Forest Whitaker, Halle Berry, Morgan Freeman, Whoopi Goldberg, Lupita Nyong’o, Viola Davis, and so many other nominated and winning Black and of color Academy Award winners!
by Anthony R. Green
In the world of Classical music, there has developed a certain flow chart of interactions. Within this flowchart, the musicologist who is primarily a musicologist is very rarely part of any significant interaction with a performer or a composer (the music critic is even more rarely part of such interactions, perhaps for good reason!). I specify this because I personally have friends who are primarily performers or composers who occasionally or often write scholarly articles, conduct research, and present at conferences, but they are not primarily musicologists. I cannot say the same about the highly awarded, accomplished, and incredible Dr. Kira Thurman, who I had the honor of collaborating with for a Castle of our Skins residency panel discussion!
Dr. Kira Thurman is an assistant professor at the University of Michigan, specializing in history and German studies, but also works in the fields of modern central Europe, cultural history, musicology, Black studies, nationalism and racism, and transatlanticism and transnationalism. Dr. Thurman is a clasically trained pianist who grew up in Vienna, Austria. Combining her Afro-German and Classical musician identities, Dr. Thurman earned her PhD in 2013 from the University of Rochester, majoring in history and minoring in musicology through the prestigious Eastman School of Music. Among her awards and fellowships are the Berlin Prize from the American Academy of Berlin, the University of Notre Dame Peters Fellowship, and the Fulbright.
Dr. Thurman has articles published in numerous journals, such as the Journal of World History, the Journal of the American Musicological Society, and the German Studies Review, among others. Last June, one of Dr. Thurman's articles went viral in the music world, and justly so. This article - entitled Singing Against the Grain: Playing Beethoven in the #BlackLivesMatter Era which you can read HERE - spotlights an unfortunately too common narrative of a young, Black male youth who was murdered by a racist bomber targeting one of Austin TX's oldest Black neighborhoods. The unique aspect of this story, however, is that the young man who fell victim to a racist attack was a contrabass player who had recently gained admission to Oberlin Conservatory, one of the institutions who rejected me for undergraduate study. In four parts, the article goes on to discuss issues of Blackness (with regards to Black artists involved in predominantly non-Black artistic practices), cultural responsibility and expectation, personal anecdotes and observations, and more. This utterly relevant article should be read by every musician, amateur and professional alike. Nay, it should be read by every human.
by Anthony R. Green
Ever wonder where Castle of our Skins and many other people interested in Black Classical music news, events, information, and other tidbits get their information? Glad you asked! One of our biggest sources is an almost daily blog run by an incredibly dedicated man named William J. Zick. The blog is a companion to a website that was started in 2000, just 13 years ago. While the website's full name is quite long, people refer to it as AfriClassical.com (which you can type into your URL address bar, and it will redirect you to the original website).
As you can see from the screenshot above, anyone can subscribe to the AfriClassical blog by entering a valid email address into the FeedBurner box. After doing so, you will get almost daily emails from AfriClassical with all sorts of wonderful information about Black history, Black people involved in Classical music, upcoming events, CD reviews, articles, recommendations, competitions, and more. Castle of our Skins definitely posts information in this blog, and we are super happy to receive such support from Mr. Zick. You can listen to a fascinating interview with him here! Additionally, you can follow AfriClassical on twitter using their handle @AfriClassical . Thanks, Mr. Zick and AfriClassical for being such a great source of Black information!
by Anthony R. Green
Hello BIBA readers and Happy Black History Month! While every month here at BIBA and with Castle of our Skins is Black History Month, it is always respectful to acknowledge a celebration that was instituted after great efforts, and with the best intentions. I am fully aware of the downsides to such celebrations, but I want to perhaps shed some light on what I think the best contribution of Black History Month has been for many people: changing the single-story narrative about Black people. Hopefully COOS is changing that single story regarding Black people in Classical music.
The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave one of TED's most inspiring talks almost 10 years ago, entitled The danger of a single story. Her talk focuses mostly on how cultures view other cultures, how upper classes view lower classes, and how media and power of all sorts promote narrow views of complicated issues and people, thusly creating single stories. Since the talk (which you can play below), many have used her powerful words to shift perspective, embrace nuance and complexity, and discourage narrow-mindedness. For Black people in Classical music, Ms. Adichie's words cannot be more spot-on. She eloquently proclaims, "The consequence of the single story is this: it robs people of dignity; it makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult; it emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar." The biggest single story I come across is that Blackness and Classical music somehow do not mix. Sadly, I come across this from Black people as well, despite evidence of Black people being involved in this music dating back to at least 1511. History classes the world over have conveniently left out many deserving composers primarily because of the color of their skin or their gender. And while many conversations are now taking place trying to correct this single story, prominent critics still - in 2018 - release articles and books about the greatest composers, and they are all white and male. Let's change this story. Why? For obvious reasons, of course. But Ms. Adichie can tell you much better than I can. (Click below!)
Writings, musings, photos, links, and videos about Black Artistry of ALL varieties! Feel free to drop a comment or suggestions for posts!