Anniversary of the Tulsa massacre: black classical artists turn pain into music
But composer Adolphus Hailstork doesn’t want us to look away. He doesn’t want us to cover our ears, no matter how piercing the truth may be.
There is art in this pain. And, if you listen, there is also the triumph.
In her latest work, “Tulsa 1921: Pity These Ashes, Pity This Dust” with libretto by Herbert Woodward Martin, the story of those dark days is told by a young girl, going through destruction and lamenting dead hopes. of a prosperous, industrious black community.
O, pity this dust, she sings.
This human work
Laid low in the abstract earth.
Together, they give voice to a truth that has long been denied in the exclusive and often hostile world of classical music: Dark stories are a necessary and immortal part of American musical tradition.
Building sound cathedrals
“The survival of African Americans in this country is a story of survival. She deserves to be honored in the arts. On stage. In music,” he said. “It is a noble story and it must be told.”
His story is not always pleasant. In “American Guernica”, composed in memory of the victims of the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing in 1963, the flutes and horns resound in an incessant roll. An almost biblical grief permeates Hailstork’s many meditations on slavery. At the moment he is working on a piece in honor of George Floyd called “A Knee on the Neck”.
Many of Hailstork’s works are shaped by pride, spirituality, or a sense of historical significance.
“And sometimes,” he said, “it’s rage.”
But even his most solemn works are balanced by a counterweight of hope. He is there in “Pity These Ashes”, amid the tears of a child seeing the achievements of his black neighbors burned to the ground.
Don’t allow the ashes to be the end of my life.
Don’t let this dust be the only memory of my work.
“Although this is a complaint from those who have died,” he said, “it is also a proclamation, that as long as we live on this earth, we will continue to struggle.”
Hailstork believes America has never really mourned the countless lives lost to slavery. This, he says, also marks the genesis of the greatest triumph in our history: this black culture survived generations of slavery and oppression, and still stands.
“Europeans built cathedrals and wrote masses on those they worshiped,” he says. “Don’t blacks deserve to have cathedrals, of sound or of stone, erected in their name too?
Become the ship
Bridges was introduced to opera and classical music by a high school choir teacher who recognized her innate gift and encouraged her to pursue it.
“What attracted me was storytelling and becoming a vessel to dive into these amazing stories,” she says. “They reflect history, they reflect the most common and universal emotions: tragedy, death, love, joy, sorrow, jealousy, deception. This music is for everyone.”
Like many others, Bridges felt the friction that comes with being a classical black artist in a space so dominated by whiteness. Long-standing systemic problems have excluded people of color from the creative industries for generations, but this hostility reverberates in even the smallest details: a venue’s makeup artist doesn’t have a dark enough shade of foundation; an unconscious customer makes a rude comment about race.
Fortunately, says Bridges, she feels the change is underway.
“I feel very inspired by the times we live in,” she says. “People of all ethnicities are wondering what they can do against racism in our art. And I also see opera houses and institutions across the country implementing initiatives for equity.”
“I feel privileged to have this platform to discuss these issues and have people actually listen,” she says.
Playing a song like “Pity These Ashes” is a huge honor for her. It is also a heavy responsibility. Black performers, like black celebrities and athletes, risk being ostracized when they raise awareness of racism, injustice – anything that disrupts the comfortable cocoon of entertainment that people expect of them.
In response to this, Bridges turns to a quote from Nina Simone: “The duty of an artist, as far as I am concerned, is to reflect time.”
Composing the future
In 1893, Czech composer Antonin Dvořák became the first classical giant to recognize the need for black musical traditions in the formation of an all-American sound.
This noble school rose to prominence with the works of Harry Burleigh, Scott Joplin, J. Rosamond Johnson, Florence Price and other composers who saw not only virtue in artistic excellence but also a chance to forge new paths to black success that others could take.
“It’s a complex problem,” says Liz Player, founder of the Harlem Chamber Players. For starters, it’s expensive to maintain an instrument, take lessons, and audition. As in many other areas where blacks are under-represented, there is a problem of visibility. (Bridges, the singer, notes that her first teacher played her African American solo videos. “Oh, if they can do that, I can do it,” she recalls thinking.)
“And then,” Player says, “when these artists get into big institutions, they’re faced with discrimination and microaggressions, and the kind of discomfort that comes from being the only black person in the room.”
This is why institutions like the Harlem Chamber Players are so important. Faced with professional and creative barriers, musicians of color have long found brotherhood, support, and opportunity in groups created with them in mind – choral societies and orchestras formed around the Harlem Renaissance period, to modern iterations like the New York City Housing Authority. Symphony orchestra, founded in 1971.
“It’s a haven for people to come, a place where we can come together and not feel like we’re the only ones,” Player says. “We need each other. We need this space so that we can make music together, the way we want.”
While classical music is often characterized as outdated and inaccessible, the reality is that creators like Hailstork, Jessie Montgomery, Alice Coltrane and Trevor Weston – other composers featured in the upcoming Harlem Chamber Players program – are evolving the genre of the same way their ancestors have had it for hundreds of years. Even the archetypal old European men of yore were not always hampered by moldy conventions. The best were to invent, to tell new stories, to provoke riots, to disrupt those in power and sometimes – sometimes – to defend a better world through their art.
Classical black artists, and indeed all artists of color, are the rightful heirs to this tradition. It is time to listen to them.