What's going on in Ferguson, MO is devastating. It's impossible these days to watch the news or log onto social media without seeing footage or hearing stories about the protests, riots, and violence centering around police brutality and racism, taking place in this St. Louis suburb. Growing up and living in a predominately black city has helped me cultivate a belief system with diversity and mutual respect at its core, but it's obvious that this sentiment doesn't run through many people in this country of ours. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that "Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter," so I feel obligated to voice my opinion from my personal perspectives as a black man who is in an interracial, gay relationship and a classical musician.
My boyfriend of almost 8 years is white (just laying out the facts). Andy and I often times find ourselves at his parents' house for dinner, and I love talking about race relations then-and-now with Andy's dad, who has seen so much injustice, and so much change. One of my favorite stories from Andy's dad concerns voting rights. He says in West Memphis, AR (where he grew up), most black people worked in the lumber yards when he was a younger. Leaving work before the sound of the "end of day" whistle was forbidden, so the culture behind these workers was to continue the task at hand until they heard the whistle. Andy's dad says that it was tradition on voting days for the whistle to "coincidentally" be rung late, preventing the bulk of the black population from voting and getting their voices heard. This practice has been stopped, of course, but for some reason we're still not voting. Sure, everyone came out to get Obama into office, but the small elections count too. The people who we put on city councils, judge seats, and even school boards directly effect what happens with law enforcement, and we (black people) need to stop allowing this proverbial work whistle to keep us out of the voting booth. The "stand your ground" law may have never existed if a different person was voted into a seat of power, after all.
Apart from the racial demographics that make up my relationship with Andy unacceptable to some, the simple fact that we're gay can't be overlooked when discussing this issue. The Advocate magazine once put on their cover, "Gay is the New Black", and it's a rhetoric tossed around quite often that I can't bring myself to agree with, fully. In Mississippi there was once a slave named America, who couldn't keep her slave master from sleeping with her and having his kids. Once freed, America and her children did their best to begin their lives as anyone else in the pursuit of happiness, but it's difficult to dig a ditch when you never owned a shovel. One of America's daughters, Mollie, married a man and they eventually found a way to make ends meet in a still very oppressive society, despite coming from nothing. Mollie had a daughter named Lillian, who had a daughter named Joyce, who had a daughter named Alesia, who had a son named Garrett. I will always be linked to the unfair disinheritance of African people who had to pull themselves from bootstraps they were never given. The sentiments towards the ancestors of slaves hasn't changed for many non-black people, while the benefits of slave ownership can still be seen in the wealthiest families and corporations in this country today. Our existence in the United States is rooted in hate and disrespect, and that hate is manifested in systems of control like these law enforcements that kill innocent black kids weekly, it seems. I understand first hand the struggle of being gay (especially in the south), but I'm sorry - it's simply not the new black.
Now, when I think about race relations in my career, I have to say that I haven't had many direct issues, but it's certainly something that holds significance in classical music. Africans who fell victim to the North American slave trade brought nothing to the new world - certainly not instruments. To find a place in this world, black people have always had to take what we've been given from a Euro-centric culture and use it for our own gain. The bassoon has brought me a long way - I've been places, seen things, and met people who I would have never had the opportunity to experience otherwise. The same can apply to Solomon (the main character of "12 Years a Slave"). I think it's important to take your own personal talents and use them to benefit yourself and those around you, while remembering your own heritage. Solomon had so much power with his western education and musical abilities on the violin. At the same time, he was fully aware of and participated in the musical traditions and cultures started by the slaves at the plantation he worked. His ability to read and write literally freed him, and this is a testament to both the power of being educated and using your talent to the fullest, but also not forgetting your own culture. While it's obvious that we black people need to continue to educate ourselves, nothing makes me angrier than a black (or any) classical musician downing rap and the culture that surrounds it, and we've got to understand that this type of disrespect resonates into non-black communities, perpetuating the ideas of better and worse. This is just another small micro aggression that has made it legal for the police to shoot and kill unarmed black boys, and we need to stop.
The more I type and think about this, the more I could say, but I'll leave it at what I've said so far, and end with a quote from Mamie Till: