Conservatory Controversy Exposes Shortcomings, But Overshadows Vital Programming

Editor’s note: This letter addresses a controversial flier for the final recital in the Conservatory’s Black History Month series “Celebrating Black Artistry.”

I’d like to make three points about the Conservatory’s Black History Month programming in 2021 for those who might be interested in hearing my perspective. 

First of all, it’s important for readers to know that this February, the Conservatory’s programming included six events, with performances and presentations by Black faculty, staff, and invited guests. The concert of works by Black composers on Feb. 28 was a small part of an entire suite of programming and was intended to cap off a full month of amazing presentations by Black artists such as Katherine Jolly, associate professor of voice and Jeff Scott, associate professor of horn; Oberlin alumni Troy Stephenson, OC ’20, and Marlea Simpson, OC ’17; and nationally-recognized musicologists of color such as Kira Thurman, Naomi André, Imani Mosley, and Loren Kajikawa. Each has recent or upcoming books, recordings, or other projects that positively reflect the music of the African diaspora and contribute to the decolonization of American music education. It is important to read their names and discover their work, because it’s a shame that the discussion surrounding the concert of Feb. 28 is now overshadowing the musical contributions of these Black professionals.

Second, it’s important for the Conservatory to acknowledge that this episode has indisputably highlighted the need to bridge the gap between the values by which the institution professes to live and our institutional reality. We do not live by the values of diversity and inclusion as fully as we wish. And, institutionally, we don’t really know yet what it means to center narratives and people that are historically “other.” This statement is not intended as an excuse — it is simply a description of the facts. 

The truth is that in recent memory — at least during my time at Oberlin, if not previously — the Conservatory has never produced this much programming for Black History Month. Because we are doing something we haven’t done before, we are likely to make mistakes. Which is, unfortunately, what happened in this case; and we ought to continue to produce at least this much programming for Black History Month so as to continue to improve our institutional culture. I can be proud of the work my colleagues have done thus far to bridge the gap between our declared values and reality, while still admitting that it is clearly not yet sufficient. I look forward to our continued efforts. 

Finally, there are some who seem to believe this episode raises the question of whether, and how, it could be legitimate for white artists to celebrate Black music through performance. I believe the answer must be that yes, of course we should want white artists to perform music by Black composers, and also we should want Black artists to do so, and also every other kind of artist — with the caveat that they publicly acknowledge the Black provenance of that material and are ensuring appropriate compensation for the composer. 

Whether we want white artists to make their entire careers largely off of playing Black music is a more complicated and problematic question, but that’s just not the situation here. In this case, the concert of Feb. 28 concluded an entire month of events involving Black musicians and academics, and this concert featured world-class artists who were eager to increase our collective awareness of three Black composers. Those composers are William Grant Still, Jeffrey Mumford, and Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint-Georges. I again invite you to read their names and explore their music, because they also have been overshadowed, when we should have centered them from the beginning.