Canon in the Smelting Pot: Margaret Bonds
Margaret Bonds (1913-1972) has been making some appearances on my Twitter feed as an example of African American presence in European classical music. What has become increasingly clear to me (what was certainly already clear to POC in conservatory environments) is not just the lack of representation in/access to conservatory style musical education, but the erasure of a history of people who have been there all along. Music History 101 students, raise your hand if you know Joseph Boulogne! Well, the way things have been going recently, there might be a couple kids now a days who know that name, but we certainly didn't talk about him at any point in my schooling between 2004-2008. Funny, that.
Speaking about things education overlooks, did you know that in my AP English class's discussion of Langston Hughes' poem, "A Dream Deferred," we never talked about what the explosion at the end was? Now just give me a second. I've got to check my notes, because something happened recently that seemed like what that poem might be referring to... Hm. What was it again? Something about protests against racial injustice... Maybe you'll know what he was talking about, but whatever it is, it wasn't worth mentioning to us white high school students. As far as we knew, the poem "Hold Fast to Dreams" was a reminder that we could be "whatever we wanted to be" as long as we dreamed it, the kind of poem meant for a person who wears "Live, Laugh, Love" T-shirts.
Of course, bringing up minority representation in just about anything in the US brings swift vitriol. "I don't care about color," says some white dude, "I just care about quality." What kind of quality? Never mind. Somehow it's never quite good enough. And god forbid somebody cast John Boyega as a stormtrooper.
After all, the entire Star Wars universe, a whole galaxy of planets and civilizations, that has aliens of every color from green to orange, somehow only has one human with a skin tone darker than double-bleached Wonder Bread.
Which brings me back to Margaret Bonds. Her musical education included piano lessons from her mother, Estelle C. Bonds, composition lessons from Florence Price (who I wrote about in a previous post)
and William L. Dawson (who I most certainly write about in a future post) and both a bachelor's and master's degree in music from Northwestern University. She also became quite close with soprano Abbie Mitchell and composer Will Marion Cook. Among her performance achievements were performances with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, as well as playing Florence Price's Piano Concerto with the Women's Orchestra of Chicago.
She also was a close collaborator with Langston Hughes, and the two did not shy away from lyrics which either drew explicitly on Black experience in America (like The Negro Speaks of Rivers or Three Dream Portraits) or worked to restore the presence of Black people in history. To that second point, I refer particularly to the work The Ballad of the Brown King, a cantata focusing on Balthazar's trip with the Three Kings to pay homage to Jesus. Tying the context from above paragraphs here, one can hopefully understand how setting these lyrics would be a gutsy move in a world where there were separate water fountains for Black Americans, because it would still be a gutsy move today. Sigh. Hold fast to dreams, indeed.
Here is Margaret Bonds' Three Dream Portraits, given a phenomenal performance by soprano Icy Simpson and pianist Artina McCain. The recordings are drawn from their album "I, too," a collection of African American art songs and spirituals.