A couple of weeks ago, I met with a dear friend from my Juilliard days. It had been over three years, but after a couple of rounds at Café Tallulah near our old stomping ground, we had really opened up. He’s also African American, and we soon found ourselves deep in conversation about the persistent lack of diversity within the classical field, and how this issue has come to surface as we move forward in our careers: Not only do we have to keep performing at the top of our games, but we do so while carrying a strong sense of social responsibility that we’ve inherited from generations before us:
At some point in their careers, African American artists will be forced to grapple with the intersection between race and their art, regardless of whether this is the artist’s intention. For Langston Hughes it was, and by the 1920s, the celebration of blackness in his writings quickly earned him the title, “Poet Laureate of Harlem.” While many of us are familiar with his gift for weaving his views on race, class, and gender into his soft, succinct lines of poetry, far less of us are aware of not only how musical forms provided inspiration for such lyric narratives, but also how closely he worked with established performers and composers of his day. This was the subject of Terrance McKnight’s “Music in the Life of Langston Hughes,” whose live adaptation I could not wait to see.
After triple checking my Google Maps directions, I arrived a few minutes early at the Central branch of the Queens Public Library. Quickly scanning those also waiting in the queue, I was immediately struck by how the audience was predominantly older and African American.
We slowly made our way down the stairs, and the seats quickly filled up in the rather dated, yet cozy auditorium. An image of a young Hughes was displayed on the modest projection screen, along with the words to his poignantly defiant, “I, Too:”
I, too, sing America.
I am the darker brother.
They send me to eat in the kitchen
When company comes,
But I laugh,
And eat well,
And grow strong.
Following the somewhat nervous ramblings of an introduction, the performers took their places with the actor positioned across the stage at a writing desk, complete with a vintage typewriter and music player. The lecture began, and in that voice of his (that I could listen to for hours), McKnight took us through Hughes’s Midwestern upbringing, accompanied by an impressive array of old family photos, and light improvisation in the piano.
Spirituals were deeply embedded in the diversely-rich musical soundscape of Hughes’s childhood, and it was fitting that the first performance of the evening was of the hymn, “It is well with my soul.” Ms. Burnett delivered a stunningly eloquent, poised interpretation, and it wasn’t before long that the hands went up, fans started waving. This was a sanctified church service, and it made me smile so that I almost forgot where I was and asked my neighbor for a mint.
The lecture was tastefully accompanied by music ranging from spirituals to the blues, from opera to gospel, and it was Ms. Burnett’s striking ease with the versatility of styles that was for me the most memorable takeaway from the evening. Perhaps most ironically, it was her rendition of Gershwin’s “Summertime” that nearly brought down the house, and yet for Hughes expressed his disdain for the misappropriation of the blues and other black musical styles by white composers (see Porgy and Bess) most clearly in his 1940 poem “Note on Commercial Theater:”
You’ve taken my blues and gone-
You sing ‘em on Broadway
And you sing ‘em in Hollywood Bowl,
And you missed ‘em up with symphonies
And you fixed ‘em
So they don’t sound like me
Yep, you done taken my blues and gone.
The lecture came to a close with a performance of Margaret Bonds’s setting of “I, Too” from her song cycle Three Dream Portraits (1959). It was a beautiful conclusion to the evening, but as I slowly made my way out of the auditorium, I paused. Why was opera, one of the oldest and most established forms within the classical genre, so important to Hughes? And throughout the presentation, the music of Margaret Bonds was featured more than that of any other composer. Short excerpts from her “Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and The Ballad of the Brown King played softly underneath the narration, and yet her name was mentioned only in passing.
While I can agree that perhaps this wasn’t the time, place, or audience to explore more deeply these subjects, I would love to discuss them, perhaps over coffee or a drink sometime. This kind of discourse between black artists is probably exactly what Hughes would’ve wanted, and it is definitely this artist’s social responsibility to do so.