So earlier on this most auspicious of several other Nigger Day! holidays we now have strewn carelessly about the calendar like junk vehicles, broken toys, and stolen bric-a-brac across the dead brown grass of a Darktown front lawn, the local classical-music station spent the afternoon highlighting the “contributions” to the orchestral music oeuvre (not so auspicious, actually) of Black Composers (if any).
I used that “if any” aside sarcastically, yes, but advisedly too. Because apparently, there are indeed a handful of uppity Neegrows who claim to be composers of symphonic music. After enduring a painfully wretched interlude of truly godawful sqwronk and blorgle, including one “composition” featuring a male singer for whom one couldn’t help but feel a certain measure of pity as the poor fellow tried manfully, but all in vain, to locate some semblance of melody somewhere in the unmusical, atonal mosquito repellent this alleged Black Composer™ dared to claim as his own. As I was desperately cramming bits of toilet paper, styrofoam packing material, asbestos swatches, and cigarette filters up against my eardrums to blunt the agony, I realized that, as a huge ST-TNG fan, I had heard this material before:
You guys may think I’m just being funny here, but I swear that’s what this crap sounded like. Seriously.
Which doesn’t mean that there are NO black classical-music composers worth lending an ear to, mind. I know of at least one: the great Justin Holland, a true-blue, gin-you-wine-article American Original of the classical guitar.
Justin Holland (July 26, 1819 – March 24, 1887) was an American classical guitarist, a music teacher, a community leader, a black man who worked with white people to help slaves on the Underground Railroad, and an activist for equal rights for African Americans.
Holland was known nationally, not only as a musician but also as a civil rights activist who worked in the same national circles as Frederick Douglass. His goal was to develop his personal growth, in order to stand as an example for others to see. As a teacher, he deliberately chose a “cautious and circumspect” bearing, keeping his relationships with students strictly professional. He chose work that was considered honorable and held high standards, and the professional respect that accompanied his position aided his civil rights goals.
A measure of his success in showcasing the admirable African American to the world came after he died, when he was given eulogies, by white people as well as African Americans, about his skill as a musician and his personal character.
…In 1845 he moved to Cleveland, Ohio, in the Western Reserve, where he worked on his dream of complete acceptance for African Americans by white Americans, with complete equality. Cleveland was another place where white people were sympathetic toward African Americans. He saw the area as a place that gave him the opportunity to work toward that goal. He consciously embraced education and assimilation as the best ways to overcome racial barriers and prejudices. He looked to European culture as a source of admirable standards (and hoped that middle-class Americans around him would associate him with those standards as well.) He spoke of his own music in terms of European excellence, teaching the “correct system” to fret the strings on the guitar, as done by “the best Masters of Europe.” He also wrote a 324-page treatise on subjects of moral reform.
The standout thing about Justin Holland is that, nearly unique among classical-guitar composers and performers, all of Holland’s work proudly bears a readily-identifiable Made In America™ stamp. To wit:
All of his stuff I’ve ever heard—and I’ve heard quite a bit over the years—is like this: lush, gorgeous, with all the Spanish or Italian influence sanded off to leave nothing but pure America the Beautiful shining through. If you listen close enough, you can hear the earliest stirrings of another distinctly American form in there: jazz.
Pretty, no? So here’s to ya, Justin Holland; God rest ye, and long may your beautiful music endure. You are a credit not just to your race, as they used to say, but to your art, and to your nation as well.