Al Jolson performing in Blackface, an unfortunate tradition,
but the basis for this exquisite poem.
"Minstrel Man" is an extraordinarily poignant poem about the pain that can be hidden behind a smile. Minstrel men were popular performers in the 1900's, and generally performed in Blackface. These minstrel shows were also called "Blackface Tradition".
Blackface was a popular performance tradition for nearly 100 years in the United States and Britain, beginning around 1830. Unfortunately, Blackface proliferated racist images and social perception worldwide which is wholely unacceptable, but this exquisite poem stands alone as a universal expression of masked pain.
Minstrel Man, by Langston Hughes
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know
My mother has always been an example of reaching out to people who are suffering, even if they put on a happy face. Somehow she has a sixth-sense and knows when to call a person at the moment they need it, or when to put an arm around someone who needs tender loving care in that instant, even if they are a stranger to her.
I hope we can become more aware of the people around us who are silently suffering. I was just reading, "What you see on the outside does not always reflect what is happening on the inside. A smile does not necessarily express happiness or pleasure. Sometimes a smile is a mask used to hide the pain within." (Bridget R. Cooks, Ph.D., untitled essay referencing "Minstrel Man").
Let's try to forget ourselves a little today and look at the people around us. We may be surprised by what we notice and how we have the power to help someone ~ even with just a smile.
If you are hurting, I pray that someone you know, or even a passing stranger, will sense what is behind your smile and offer you the kind word, the gentle touch or the hug that you need. You are lovable and deserving of every good thing.
[a Dr. Cook wrote an essay about this poem, if you would like to study it more].
In the summer of 2015, I was asked to participate in a benefit concert presented by The Dream Unfinished, an activist orchestra which supports NYC-based civil rights and community organizations through concerts and presentations. It was held on the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death and featured works by Leonard Bernstein, William Grant Still, and a world premiere by Jessie Montgomery. I worried that I was just another token, but the concert season in New York City slows down in the summer months, and the roster of musicians was nothing short of impressive. The evening was filled with excellent performances of mostly pieces I had never heard before, interwoven with moving speeches by civil rights activists and performers. As I looked around the audience, I noticed something else—it was incredibly diverse and I could tell that they were actively engaged. When they left the concert that evening, they all took something home with them. And so did I.
I immediately wrote to the executive producer and founder, Eun Lee, told her about my research on Margaret Bonds, and by the following season, I was serving on the advisory board. As the organizational demands grew for The Dream Unfinished, I became the deputy director in the fall of 2016.
Through our annual headline event, chamber concerts, and presentations, The Dream Unfinished uses classical music as a platform to engage audiences with issues related to social and racial justice. By partnering with local civil rights organizations, and coming together for an evening of music and reflection centered around one social justice issue, we are giving space to activists to share their work through music, while introducing our classical music audience to the range of social injustices that continue to plague our society.
Our programming celebrates the works of composers from communities that have been historically marginalized in the classical music industry. By presenting works by composers who reflect the diversity of our society, we are challenging both performers and audience members to question their absence from the classical music canon, and to start thinking about the larger socioeconomic forces that led to their exclusion in the first place. It is important that we not only feature such composers of the past, but also that diverse emerging voices are heard. This is accomplished through our commissioning program, which results in a new orchestral work each year written by a composer of color.
This season, titled Raise Your Hand, focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline. More specifically, we are examining how the absence of role models and the one-size-fits all educational design has proven disadvantageous particularly in minority communities. As in our previous seasons, the social justice issue that we focus on informs not only those organizations that we partner with, but also guides our programmatic decisions for the chamber concerts and headline event.
Raise Your Hand will begin with a teaching artist residency that matches members from our diverse roster of musicians with middle and high school students from across the five boroughs. Together they will work on the repertoire for our main event, during which the students will perform alongside professional musicians. The concert will take place on Sunday, June 11 at the Great Hall, Cooper Union, and the program features works primarily by black composers ranging from the 18th century to the present day.
The Harlem Renaissance artists and Margaret Bonds understood that when direct action may fail, art can speak in the beautiful yet poignant way that art has the power to do. Through the creation of or expression through art, at least for me, it seems just a little bit easier to stand on the front lines of today’s activism, working to transcend our differences while recognizing and celebrating them. And that’s how classical music got me woke as a cultural citizen in 2017.