Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of The 1964-65 Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts,The Black Composer and My Brother's Keeper Initiative

As we mark the end of Black History Month 2015,  the  51th Anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, The 50th Anniversary of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and the critical new “My Brother’s Keeper”Initiative 
 launched by the first African American President, Barack Obama, the impact of these events on and for current and future contemporary African American composers has promise…
However, the promise is still a mixed one…
That is to say, while there was a major flowering and great showcase of programming and recording of music by contemporary Black Composers during the late 1960s-70s, i.e. Primous Fountain, George Walker, Olly Wilson, Adolphus Hailstork et al,  spirited  invitations to both the commissioning and  programming of new music by Black Composers in symphony subscription concerts slowed notably and then ….virtually disappeared with the entrenching emergence of a social/cultural conservatism 
The social political pulse of the country changed from the heightened sense of social responsibility and accountability which dawned during The March on Washington, President Kennedy’s TV speech about Negro Civil Rights and the Kennedy-tribute era of LBJ’s  “The Great Society” .  
There was if you will….a “cultural “backlash” to the perception of 
“The Negro”  as a wronged underclass in American society that the beloved and assassinated President spoke of…. to one that became militant in proclaiming a status of “Black and Proud”.
Yet, for many “the New Negro” …now Black and Proud  had a darker side….one that was linked to the controversial yet clairvoyant rhetroic of  Malcolm X  and  the fear of  predictions-become-reality declared in  James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time .
Worse, “The New Negro” became code for many synonymous with “Riots”.“welfare mother”, “food stamps”,  “urban gangs and thugs”,“housing projects run amuck”…and  “drugs and drug dealers”.    
The spirit of the nation called out for “Law and Order”, a vociferous and clairvoyant announcing of a “New Jim Crow”  steeped in Mass Incarceration of “dangerous elements” to protect “The Social Good”.
In many ways, the social political tempo of the nation had become uniquely mirrored in and linked to the iconic Nancy Reagan motto “Just Say No” anti drug campaign.  
Reactionism and resistance to the idealism of The Great Society became enshrined in the face of  a younger generation’s call for social justice.  
 A Hegelian and Marx like “dialectical conflict” became foundational.  
Symphony Halls located in downtown urban centers became  sacred refuges  for surburban charter buses transporting a beloved aging subscriber and donor base which fled to the suburbs [White Flight] and viewed themselves as removed from the incursion of  Fergusons and #BlackLives Matter Movements…… not yet born….
Valhalla like …as if built by Wotan to enshrine the immortality of the chosen Gods who entered into Vahallas of the present and future times….. these sacred places were viewed as untouchable by the realities of the dark  Metropolis  like world over which  this Valhallian utopia thrived…
Untouchable and beyond reach…… by the troubled and denied…..potentialities of  the not yet born Ferguson 
Mike Browns as student ushers at  St Louis Symphony or Cleveland Tamir Rices as  attendees of  Cleveland Orchestra Young People’s Concerts,  in  this Wagnerian Ring Cycle analogy, 
it is as if  this world was heedless of Erda’s plea and warning… of Alberich’s curse, of  Hagen’s tribal drive for power and ultimately Brunhilde’s threat of a necessary and immutable immolation….
.A dream deferred by a promissory note , Symphony orchestras slowed their invitations and programming of new and older music by Black Composers on subscription concerts-except during February, Black History Month.
Yet, there were silver linings and sunshine in the dark clouds 
Notable moments
 – 1975-76 witnessed the launch of the iconic Columbia Records Black     Composers Series championed by Conductor Paul Freeman and The     Detroit Symphony.  This Series showcased critical music by Black   Composers from 1650 to 1976
–  1986 witnessed the emergence of Anthony Davis and his landmark  opera: X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X premiered at the recently closed New York City Opera.
–  1989 witnessed the emergence and critical recording of Alvin Singleton’s brilliant orchestral music by The Atlanta Symphony including the iconic After Fallen Crumbs.
–  1995 witnessed Olly Wilson’s Shango Memory for Orchestra, commissioned for the 150th Anniversary of The New York Philharmonic and The African American Composers Project cd showcase of  Billy Childs’ The Distant Land, Bill Banfield’s Symphony #6 and David Baker’s Jazz Suite for Clarinet and Symphony Orchestra 
–  1997, Amistad,  The Story of The Slave Ship Rebellion, a new critical opera by Anthony Davis was premiered at Lyric Opera of  Chicago.
–  Importantly, there has been a flowering and a critical emergence of an important younger generation of composers including  Trevor Weston, Jonathan Bailey Holland, Shawn Okpebholo, Joel Thompson,John Wineglass, Gary Powell Nash and Jessie Montgomery
The challenge in 2014-2015 for Black Composers is one that was on full view at the  Sphinx Con  2014  think tank conference in Detroit sponsored by  Sphinx Music   
Artistic administrators and the core of musicians at the major symphony orchestras consist of predominantly upper to upper middle class white male and female musicians who are slow to embrace a deep commitment to diversity in the classical performing arts.   
 Black musicians only make up at maximum 2% of the composition of America’s orchestras. 
Institutionally, American orchestras and their administrations are comfortable in this ivory tower status.     The entrenched practice of holding auditions with screens actually makes it nearly impossible to advance the goal of making Symphony Orchestras more ethnically diverse.    
Such reality begs the question, are orchestras and other classical performing arts organizations located in urban centers with demographically morphing populations…..interested in or concerned about  building  21st century audiences that are reflective of the communities in which they exist…     
Rhetorically, by inference,  do orchestra halls and opera houses prefer to nurture and build relationships with the sons, daughters and grandchildren of their aging endowment demographic that enshrines the status quo  vs  embrace the multi cultural  demographic that is but 10-15 minutes walking/driving distance from their performance space
This challenge applies even more so to the world of The Black Composer. 
At Sphinx Con, one white male presenter quite openly and declaratively…. made the case with an exceptional showcase of statistical analysis that because white men are in charge of most of the leading artistic organizations, that white male privilege…..reigns …..and Black and Latinos seeking more rapid diversity….need to get over it      The Reality of ‘the numbers’ reflect a core difference in what is considered ‘essential’ in defining who can play and who has clout to suggest what ‘Change’ is valued and….what kind of Change is ….manageable .  
Further, the suggestion followed that such artistic organizations [theater in particular] which have a predominantly white attendance and white donor/endowment demographic should be quite proud of and satisfied with their “incremental change” of 1% or 2%  re: audience and community engagement       
 In other words, incrementalism is truly the best approach, but too much diversity becomes a kin to the gentrification code word “nimby”..Not In My Backyard….  
In this light,Change or diversity for diversity’s sake can not outpace what is consistent with the core values and mission of an organization’s  board, donor and endowment demographic.    
 In 1960s terminology,  Desegregration  must be evaluated slowly, deliberately and on a case by case basis.
During The Civil Rights Movement, this refrain….“go slow…take a gradual approach” was famously repeated over and over to Martin Luther King.  
 This “go slow” paradigm emanating from both civic and interfaith leaders  motivated his passion to write his iconic, A Letter From A Birmingham Jail in 1963   
Rhetorically, the state of affairs in 2014-2021 begs this question: 
Despite the symbolic and measurable advances in both the concert halls and the opera stages of the 1960s-90s and the impact of the careers of Andre Watts, Leontyne Price, Grace Bumbry, Martina Arroyo, Jessye Norman, Kathleen Battle, Denyce Graves …and William Warfield, George Shirley, Simon Estes… alongside… “The New Generation”  is the world of  The Classical Performing Arts in The United States the last bastion of Segregation?  
 If the growing pool of  exceptionally talented  African American classically trained instrumentalists, singers, composers and conductors in 2014-2020 are kept out like an Invisible Man out of Ralph Ellison’s landmark work of the same name, where are we headed?
This rhetorical question is answered ….in a problematic reality which The Black Composer is confronted in 2014 and 2015, 50 years after The 1964 and 1965 Civil Rights Acts.
  – Black Composers have been passed over for Commissions to write        music commemorating the critical anniversaries of The Civil  Rights Movement. i.e. March o Washington, Birmingham Church Bombing, 1964 Mississippi Murders,1965 March on Selma and 1968 Assassination of Martin Luther King
 – How is this possible… that non Black composers are viewed as more  instinctively capable of composing music that is critically more  relevant and drawn from an experience of being Black…. than Black Composers, many of whom are children of The Civil Rights Movement?    It begs the critical question…. how is this possible and why?
–  Is it defensible… suggest  that accomplished Black composers like Adolphus Hailstork, Anthony Davis, Bill Banfield, Billy Childs, Terrance Blanchard  lack the requisite skills to compose music that honors the Civil Rights legacy of their parents
In this light, I give unending applause for the progressive vision and work of Conductor, Leonard Slatkin and The Detroit Symphony for inviting a conversation about nurturing and developing Diversity in Classical Music.  
In March of every year since the mid 2000s, Slatkin and The Detroit Symphony presented a feature showcase of music by contemporary African American composers and a related Symposium in their Earshot Classical Roots Reading in association with The American Composers Forum/Orchestra. 
Other American Composers Orchestra  Diversity in Composition events showcasing the new works of Black Composers have followed since  2014 through 2019.

EarShot March 2019, Detroit Symphony Orchestra

A similar energy gives new life to the great legacy of  Black Conductors.
From the groundbreaking legacy of Dean Dixon to James De Priest,  Paul Freeman, Michael Morgan and Leslie Dunner, a new generation is making its mark.
These include Roderick Cox, Kalena Bovell, Jonathon Heyward, and Germany’s Kevin John Edusei.
Yet following the Dean Dixon legacy, this new generation of young, gifted and black conductors  have found opportunity and acceptance in Europe vs The United States. 
 Why is this their reality, 50+ years after The March on Washington?
More is needed ….but incremental promise continues in 2019-20
The African American Network of The Chicago Symphony presented a new work by African American  composer, Renee Baker dedicated to the life and legacy of James Baldwin in early February 2019 and a new work in February 2020

On February 17th, 2019, Adolphus Hailstork’s commission by The LA Philharmonic for its 2019 Centennial Season witnessed the world premiere of the stunning orchestral work that honored the legacy of William Grant Still, titled STILL HOLDING ON conducted by Thomas Wilkins.