"No one knows exactly what day, or year, Scott Joplin was born."
The fact fell on me like a sand bag. My daughter and I were listening to the umpteenth episode of the Classics for Kids podcast and so far had heard the matter-of-fact birth year of numerous composers. Telemann, 1681. Johann Strauss, Jr., 1825. Rossini gets a smile because he was a leap day baby.
But then we get to a composer whose birth day and month are lost forever; the year was either 1867 or 1868.
The fact struck me because I knew that, unlike other composers we'd learned about, Scott Joplin was African-American. The obscurity of his birth shouted something sad about the black experience in America.
I thought of Frederick Douglass, another African-American who did not know his birthday. Though not a composer, he had some things to say about songs. In his Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, he writes of when slaves walked to their master’s house to collect their allowance:
They would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness...
I did not, when a slave, understand the deep meaning of those rude and apparently incoherent songs. I was myself within the circle; so that I neither saw nor heard as those without might see and hear. They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension…
I have often been utterly astonished, since I came to the north, to find persons who could speak of the singing, among slaves, as evidence of their contentment and happiness. It is impossible to conceive of a greater mistake… The songs of the slave represent the sorrows of his heart; and he is relieved by them, only as an aching heart is relieved by its tears.
Douglass never knew his father (probably his master), nor did he know his mother well enough to mourn her death. Douglass’s eloquent words did much for me to enter emotionally into his experience, which was only multiplied across the enslaved population. They made me wonder, “How many white Americans really comprehend the toll of the past?”
I’ve been blessed to grow up with family and friends who did not practice racism. We’d shake our heads and wonder about all the talk, relieved that we weren't racist - we weren’t treating certain people a certain way. But “not being racist” isn’t enough.
“Not being racist” isn’t enough because humanity needs empathy. We need others to listen to our experience and use their imagination to feel what we feel.
Unless you’re very close to someone who is grieving, you will probably find it easy to withdraw. You don’t want to say the wrong thing, so you say nothing. You say nothing, so you seem distant. Certainly, this tendency was true of me. It is less true now that I’ve walked through a deep grief. In the throes of that grief, the most comforting thing was when friends simply cried with us. Sometimes people said, “I can’t imagine what you’re going through,” but that felt isolating. “You can’t imagine?” I thought. “Please try, because I don’t want to go through this alone.” The empathy of others was impractical in itself, but comforting nonetheless.
“Not being racist” isn’t enough because humanity needs intervention. Sometimes I hear folks venting about the powerful versus the weak; the privileged versus the marginalized. Certainly there are actively wicked agents in society that bulldoze the interests of others. But I think much of the plight of “the poor and marginalized” today is due not to evil forces but to absent forces.
God is not an absent force. He observes, understands, and intervenes, especially when things are "not his fault." So many ills come about when we, as men and women made in God's image, neglect the Godlike practice of observing, understanding, and intervening if in our power. There has been a terrible fall-out from racism and slavery, and doing nothing about it (“because it’s not my fault”) can be abdication.
What does being an agent for good actually look like? Well, I don’t think we’ll know till we’ve observed, understood, and empathized a bit more for ourselves.
The historical record is clear African-Americans were never completely without white advocates and friends, otherwise we would not have the reforms we have today. But the record is equally clear there wasn’t enough humanity extended across color lines. The slave population was liberated, but, too often, the black community had to sing to themselves. But sing they did, and their music became irresistible to its hearers. It transformed American music into a brilliant gift to the world.
As I listened to the rest of the podcast, Joplin’s compositions, from ragtime to opera, were the soundtrack to these reflections. Despite everything, they could not be kept from singing. I found myself singing, too, singing words along these lines to the tune of Joplin’s “Bethena.”
February is the adopted birth month of Frederick Douglass. So let me end by recognizing his birthday, and Scott Joplin’s birthday, and the birthdays of all who don’t know their birthday. No matter the color, no matter the father, no matter the mother: you are made in God’s image and precious to the world.
Let's look out for our neighbors, and let them not sing alone.
Itzhak Perlman and André Previn play "Bethena (A Concert Waltz)" by Scott Joplin