Fantasie Negre: Realization of a Black Girl's Fantasy
This post originally appeared in Samantha Ege’s blog, Music Herstories. Below is an excerpt.
Florence Price allowed me to see myself in the centre of a history I had spent my whole life learning about from the periphery. Before I knew about her life and music, I had been inculcated to see classical music as the exclusive domain of white men. My music education proceeded from here and left me looking into a world in which I felt I could never truly belong. This was my norm. Black women did not exist here. Each history seminar, theory class and piano lesson affirmed this seeming reality. Being the only black girl in the music classroom affirmed that I should not exist either.
I knew that I could not possibly have been the first black girl in classical music. But looking around, there was very little to suggest otherwise. Like trying to dream up a new colour, I struggled to paint alternative possibilities in my mind and to imagine a classical music history that placed black women at the centre. These were impossible or improbable things.
One of my secondary school music teachers suggested that I could be a composer. She emphasized the specialness of being a black female one at that. I found the suggestion uncomfortable, even strange. My experiences studying music had reinforced my position on the outside, but there was my teacher asserting a place for me at the centre. Rather than work through the cognitive dissonance, I placed the idea out of sight, out of mind.
The adage “you can’t be what you can’t see” had clearly worked its way into my psyche. It had also warped into another pragmatic truth: you can see what you can’t be. I think of the time my piano teacher told my ten-year-old self to put aside my Scott Joplin rags for some real music. I was annoyed. But it was the same kind of annoyance I had towards being told to practice. And in the same way I eventually accepted the logical correlation between practice and progress, I also came to accept that Joplin’s music wasn’t real and bore no relation to my progress. In fact, it symbolized quite the opposite. I was too unaware to distinguish between what was useful fact and what was racist fiction, so I believed it all. The significance of playing music by a black composer barely had time to settle. Order was restored. I played (and eventually practiced) as normal. My Joplin rags were a reminder of what, or who, I couldn’t be as a classical pianist.
As time went on, I simultaneously became more involved yet less at ease with classical music. I became privy to a world that entwined exclusivity, elitism and whiteness; a world of unspoken rules; a world where clapping between the movements of a piece was sometimes seen as barbaric. Joplin gave me a glimpse into what new possibilities for this world could look like. But upon learning his rags were not real music, my view shifted. It was as if my teacher had pointed out the hidden visual in an optical illusion. I could not unsee the image of who belonged in the classical world and who did not.
That was until my foreign exchange year at McGill University, Canada…