WALK WITH ME
Updated: Jun 11, 2020
#BlackLivesMatter, the Music of the Cosmos, and the Un-Silencing of Florence B. Price
Two seemingly unrelated facts:
1. As of June 10, #BLM protest marches are taking place in 18 countries and involving millions of people worldwide, making them the largest Civil Rights movement ever seen.
2. As of June 10, G. Schirmer and Associate Music Publishers have published African American composer Florence Beatrice Price’s (1887-1953) Ten Negro Spirituals for the Piano, the first-ever edition of these songs that have been hiding in plain sight for more than a decade in the Florence Beatrice Price papers of the University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville.
What connects these seemingly unrelated facts? A single coin, one side of which is the divinely mandated ethical and moral imperative for racial justice, the other side of which is music.
Let me explain:
First, marches are majestically rich symbolic networks of humanity – in this case, millions of individuals on different continents transcending everything that divides them in order to collectively voice not only anger at the silencing of countless Black voices, but also their knowledge that equal justice is a divinely or cosmically mandated goal: the marches are the journey, equal justice their goal.
Second, music as we usually employ the term is a majestically rich symbolic network of threads of sound, organized and tied together by humanity. This was understood already by the ancient Greeks and Romans, because they grasped a deep truth that is drowned out in the din of today’s music. They understood that wherever there is movement there is vibration, that wherever there is vibration there is sound, and that sound is the stuff of music.
In this perspective, sounding music is itself only the physical manifestation of the music of humanity, which itself is but a smaller-scale manifestation of the music of the cosmos. In the worldview of the Abrahamic religions – Islam and the Judeo-Christian tradition – this cosmic music is set in motion by God him/herself. Humans cannot hear the music of humanity or the music of the cosmos, but we feel them, and the music we make is their instrument – a translation of their cosmic power into the phenomenon of sound that our puny human ears can perceive and comprehend. But power of these musics remains undiminished even in translation. This is why the music we make and hear moves us in ways that affect not only our moods and emotions, but also our ethics and moral fiber.
And finally: in the twentieth-century quest for racial justice that manifested itself in the Great Migration and the Civil Rights Movement, and whose latter-day manifestation is the #BlackLivesMatter movement, music is omnipresent – not only the sonorous variety that happens when protesters sing and when music is played over audio equipment, but also the music of millions of humans moving in concert in eighteen countries toward a single goal (this, per the ancients, is the music of humanity). These movements are the music of the cosmos made manifest. We would do well to listen to it. For to ignore or resist it is to deny a truth bigger than all of us put together, vastly more powerful than anything we can imagine – up to and including centuries of oppression of people of color and women.
Which brings me to Florence Price. Her voice – the voice of an African American and woman – is one that, through her music and the sheer power and dignity of her personality, rose to international prominence in her day despite the limitations that our profoundly racist and sexist world tried to impose upon it. After her death her voice was nearly – but only nearly – silenced for “mainstream” narratives of twentieth-century history, twentieth-century music, and American music: commentators one after another turned a deaf ear to Price’s voice even as they valorized the established canon of music by White males, most of them European and most of them dead. Until a few years ago, only a tiny handful of Price’s several hundred musical utterances were known at all, and those only to a small but diligent and persistent cohort. Worse still, even the few people who knew those few compositions did not know 95% of what Price wrote: her voice as it sounded in most of her life’s work remained effectively silenced even to those who were listening.
So Price’s Ten Negro Spirituals for the Piano represent a convergence of divinely mandated forces:
her own musical imagination’s realization of the beauty and force of the ancestral melodies that were born of Blacks’ irrepressible humanity even as they, over the course of four centuries, were enslaved, murdered, silenced, and (to the extent that Whites were able) dehumanized;
the collective making of the music of humanity that occurs when humans transcend what divides them in the pursuit of equal justice;
A transformation – or, better, transfiguration – of oppression, silencing, murder, and sorrow, through sound, into music.
These Ten Spirituals for Piano are not technically demanding – this is music that most competent pianists can make for themselves. And that is their power: they are heartfelt, intimate, and deeply personal translations of the quest for racial justice into music that humans can comprehend. My personal favorite in the set is “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” – a melody that figured prominently in the protest marches as well as church services of the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. This is a spiritual whose lyrics give voice not only to the “walk with me” concept that motivates humans whenever we join together to translate our humanity into marches, but also to the idea (which I believe) that the journey of our quest for equal justice is divinely mandated:
I want Jesus to walk with me
I want Jesus to walk with me
All along my pilgrim journey
I want Jesus to walk with me.
In my trial, Lord, walk with me
In my trials, Lord, walk with me
When the shades of life are falling
Lord, I want Jesus to walk with me.
Over these past two weeks, at the very same time that I was preparing the edition of Price’s Ten Negro Spirituals for the Piano, I was witnessing the community of people of good will rise up together against the cultures of systemic racism and police brutality to transfigure the divine mandate of our quest for racial justice – and I desperately wanted to hear this particular song as it was arranged by Florence Price. I turned to a fine former student from my years at the University of North Texas, Dr. Jammieca D. Mott at Prairie View A&M University (Prairie View, Texas), and she mentioned it to her colleague Dr. John L. Cornelius II – who graciously used his own musical imagination and skill to produce a surpassingly beautiful rendition of it, recorded on video.
Here is that video; please listen to it (only 2’19”: you can do this!) – and as you do so, open your mind and your heart to the understanding that the sounds of this newly heard music by Price, however intimate and unpretentious, are small-scale manifestations of the music of the cosmos, the music of humanity, and the pent-up power and momentum of these. It is replete with pungent dissonances, but while the pain voiced by these clashing pitches gives eloquent sonorous voice to the pain and sorrow of oppression, murder, and system racism, it is also part of a solemn journey undertaken in the company of God – and its goal is resolution. The resolution occurs with the very last note, but the air of sorrow remains: the task of resolutely pursuing our journey toward the divinely mandated goal of racial justice remains with us.
Dr. Martin Luther King, jr., declared that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” The vicious and unaccountable taking of the lives of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Lives, and the silencing forever of those lives’ voices, is a rending of the justice of the “garment of destiny.” #BlackLivesMatter, African American spirituals, and Florence Price’s deeply personal arrangement of “I Want Jesus to Walk with Me” are symbolic but potent forces against that rending.
And when the community of people of good will worldwide joins together to celebrate the voices and lives that have been wrongly taken from us by the cultures of systemic racism and police brutality, we shall overcome.