James DePreist (1936-2013)
H. Leslie Adams (b. 1932)
Aaron P. Dworkin (b. 1970)
George Walker (b. 1922)
Florence B. Price (1887-1953)
THE IDENTIFICATION OF OUR SUBJECTS
Dominique-René de Lerma
From the start, we have never come openly to grips with our own definition of the people whose lives and works we are discussing, leaving this rather much in the hands of American sociology -- and in some instances falling back on the one-drop theory of racists. Were it not for them, we might have been at a loss. If our topic were those of Italian ancestry, how sociologically relevant would it be to look at the music of John Corigliano, Gian Carlo Menotti, Walter Piston (Pistone), Paul Creston (né Giuseppe Guttoveggio) or Dean Martin (né Dino Paul Crocetti)? Certainly Italian Americans have faced prejudice from the anglophile radicals, but not slavery, not Jim Crow.
So we have called our subjects by various terms. One need not be reminded of the "n" word, but there was "negro," and that gradually secured uppercasing when not the Spanish adjective for Black, which has satisfied the National Association of Negro Musicians for almost a century. As for "Black," this was accepted by W. E. B. Dubois, James Brown, and Leontyne Price. Then there was "colored," which has always been satisfactory with the NAACP (and perhaps now starting to include Hispanics -- thanks again to the Anglophile ultraconservatives -- if not also other "persons of color"). Within recent times the acceptable "Afro-American" was modified into "African-American." All matters of pigmentation or continental roots, but not implicitly culture?
Some years ago, speaking on a non-HBCU campus, my Q&A session elicited a comment from the departmental chair: "Why do we need to label this music? Why can we not just accept it only as music?" My response was because this defines a distinct culture -- that John Coltrane was not just a musician "who happened to be Black" or Romare Bearden only accidently of color (and maybe even the misfortune thereof?). The liberal-minded cultural integrationist at this event, by the way, was Italian, and I would hate to think of Puccini apart from the rich Italian heritage of which he was so gloriously a part.
Quite recently, this web site attracted an observation from an enthusiast who nonetheless had other sentiments. The individual suggested not using "African American," with the thought that not all Black people were from Africa -- a somewhat disconcerting comment which for now will be a matter of semantics, rather than history. Quite so. Many had intermediate ports of call in the sunny Caribbean, but their ancestors retained their original identity proudly, generation after generation, no matter how many slave women were forced to bear mixed-race children. That one-drop idea again.
But can we fall back on skin color? Pigmentation is irrelevant in the study of culture, and maybe even race. In his 1948 autobiography, A man called White, Walter Francis White (Assistant Secretary of the NAACP) wrote "I am a Negro. My skin is white, my eyes are blue, my hair is blond." Should we then allow self-identification? Then what about those who pass, despite the grandmother?
Is it then a matter of culture? Would that reject William Dawson, who used violins in his Negro folk symphony (virtually a heresy, according to some students with a pre-conceived and ill-informed philosophy on Negritude), or Ulysses Kay, whose music rarely exhibits what others define as authentic? Can we then accept George Gershwin, who was not a premature Israel nationalist? Or Heitor Villa-Lobos, whose Brazilian music naturally exhibits that of his people?
If we aim for scientific accuracy, DNA tests would uncover more than grain in the haystacks, but this would be a foolish waste of time for Olly Wilson, Aretha Franklin, or B. B. King.
Let us now confess that we rely on two sources: self-identity and social definition. The former is a matter of pride, the second almost always a sign of stigma. Both of these provide our points of departure, whatever term is applied to the people, and both justify our dedication.
Dominique-René de Lerma