Getting Free: Why the Caged Bird Sings
This post originally appeared in Afrological Musicology. Below is an excerpt:
What sort of diary should I like mine to be? Something…so elastic that it will embrace anything, solemn, slight or beautiful that comes into my mind. I should like it to resemble some deep old desk…in which one flings a mass of odds and ends without looking them through. I should like to come back, after a year or two, and find that the collection had sorted itself and refined itself and coalesced, as such deposits so mysteriously do, into a mould, transparent enough to reflect the light of our life…~ Virginia Woolf
Yesterday while working on some analysis for my dissertation project, I was overcome with the beauty of Florence Price’s setting of Sympathy by Paul Laurence Dunbar. The themes of freedom, hope, and imprisonment jarred me to the core. The setting is especially poignant considering the various obstacles Price faced in her lifetime.
Prior to the premiere of her Symphony in E minor with the Chicago Symphony in 1933, no other black woman had had a work of such magnitude performed by an orchestra of such renown. What draws me to Florence Price is how she negotiates the tension of occupying white spaces (the orchestra, the conservatory, the Academy) while holding on to her black musical identity. All of this within the social milieu of the New Negro Movement. Essentially, she struggled with being “caged.” Should she renounce the inclusion of Negro Spirituals in her compositional style to assimilate to a more Eurocentric view of orchestral music? Should she uphold her responsibility to “uplift the race” through the use of direct Negro Spiritual quotations in her music — something that Alain Locke believed was the key to racial uplift?
I was moved to tears as I analyzed the first page of the score. The melody starts in a hopeful E-flat major. The vocal melody climbs through the range of an octave, but is pulled back down by a descending chromatic figure riddled with blue notes on “when the first bird sings.” The melody rises again on “I know why the caged bird sings” as if the subject is grasping at the last vestiges of hope beyond their cage. The B-section, centered in the relative minor, presents even more unexpected chromaticism. The sudden gnarly turn suggests the pain of the unjust scars referenced in the text. This narrative presents a subject striving to break from the cage that holds them — the oppressive society of Price. The subject keeps striving for the hope that one day they will transcend the cage of genre, race, and sex. Another layer is how the devise of “blue notes” is what brings the speaker down. Their blackness — something innate — is what keeps dragging them out of their fight/flight for artistic freedom.
As a black man in higher education, I struggle with feeling boxed in. It is easy to underestimate the power of being seen. I am lucky to have a wonderful African American female scholar as a mentor now. However, prior to doctoral study I was oftentimes the only black person in my classes. Over time, I started to subconsciously feel invisible. On top of this, I attend a school where opera is king. Though I am passionate about singing, this passion is not limited to opera (I have huge passion for new music and art song). My colleagues sometimes find it hard to relate to a black singer who loves musicology, classical voice, AND research. While having headshots taken recently, the photographer (also a colleague) said “you’re more of a teacher, right?” when I mentioned I wanted a few pictures suitable for research or teaching positions. I am sure they meant no harm, but I wrestled with a mysterious anger for weeks following the photo shoot. I thought, “Just because I am not in an opera with you does not mean I am not a singer!” I asked the universe, “Why do performance and pedagogy occupy such distant fields in the eyes of my colleagues?” I didn’t really fit in with the singers, and the musicologists looked at me aghast when I mentioned actual performance in my seminars. I had never felt so…caged.