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Lessons My Parents Taught Me

Posted on April 26, 2009

The April 13th edition of the New Yorker featured an article by cultural critic, Alex Ross, about the 70th anniversary of Marian Anderson's historic concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.  Ms. Anderson had been denied access to perform in the historic Constitution Hall by the Daughter's of the American Revolution, because of the color of her skin.  As a result, Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the D.A.R. and President Roosevelt approved a concert on the Mall.  More than seventy-five thousand people came out to hear her perform.

Near the end of his article, Ross states

Sadly, African-American classical musicians today seem almost as lonely as ever.  They are accustomed to being viewed as walking paradoxes.  (New Yorker, April 13, 2009:  p. 81)

Arguably, one could make the same statement about African-American college presidents--especially of a liberal arts college.  Indeed, among the colleges represented in the Annapolis Group (an organization representing the top liberal arts colleges in the country (with about 125 members), there are three African-American presidents.  Why should this even be worthy of noting?  Well, under the best of all possible circumstances it would not be.  However, we live in the United States of America, which has a legacy of racism deeply embedded in its citizens' subconscious.

As a cellist and president of one of the Annapolis Group colleges who happens also to be African-American, I have relied on the lessons that I learned from my parents to guide me during my more than 40-year career.  These lessons have been especially valuable in situations where the fact that I am African-American is like the proverbial elephant in the room that no one wants to recognize.

Among the lessons that I learned from my parents was that not everyone would see my beautiful black skin and affirm my beauty.  Therefore, I was the only one who could determine always to view myself as beautiful no matter what others might say to me.  My father also taught me not to have any illusion of inclusion when it came to my interactions with folks of the other hue (Caucasians).  In other words, always keep your distance, take what they say with a grain of salt, and don't get too comfortable around them.

Over the years, I have developed ways of dealing with my circumstances that have built on the lessons learned from my parents.  In particular, I have learned not to seek or expect validation from anyone but myself.  In other words, I am not necessarily interested in other folks liking me as long as they respect me.  I can remember distinctly when I became aware of this particular trait when I served as the first director and the first African American head of the School of Music at the University of Texas at Austin (and the only African American faculty member among a School of Music faculty of about 100).  One of my renowned faculty members was engaged in an unethical practice;  I had interceded and put an end to the practice during the spring semester.  That fall, this colleague came to my office to talk with me about the change.  In the middle of our conversation, he looked up at me and said:  "You know Ron, I really want to like you."  I responded:  "XXX, it is really not necessary for you to like me!"  He turned red, and we ended our conversation within the next few minutes.

Ironically, that very same faculty member was effusive with praise for me as a cello teacher about two months later when one of my cello students performed his sophomore qualifying exam for acceptance as a performance major.  This colleague told me that he had never heard a more beautiful Bach Suite No. 3 in his career;  he went on to congratulate me for so beautifully preparing my student.  Thinking back on my conversation with him two months earlier, I just chuckled to myself.

Just as Marian Anderson was a "walking paradox" in the 1930s, African American classical musicians, presidents, indeed, African Americans in general remain a paradox in 2009.  Witness the amount of learning that has taken place in the past 2 years related to President Barack and Ms. Michelle Obama's family backgrounds and histories.  Most African American families remain an enigma to the majority of Caucasians in this country, because of the stereotypes developed from the negative images they experience in the media.

Sadly, 70 years following Marian Anderson's historic concert, the state of relations and understanding between African-Americans and Caucasians in this country has not advanced much further with respect to true understanding.  While Barack Obama's presidency offers a glimmer of hope, I don't hold out much opportunity for change until folks learn how to have open and honest conversations about race and ethnicity.  Unfortunately, most folks, regardless of race or ethnicity, have developed mechanisms for shielding themselves from negative external forces, which make it difficult to have such personal and often painful conversations.  In my next blog, I will explore an intercultural dialogue model that has been used successfully to engage people in conversations about difficult subjects.

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