R. Christopher Teichler, Composer

A Quick Reflection

A few years back, Dr. Leo Day, the dean of the music school where I teach, asked me if I could set some poems of Langston Hughes into a song cycle. All of the poems speak of the struggle of growing up and living as a black man in American society. These poems by Hughes are powerful. Poignant. They made me angry, uncomfortable, and opened my eyes to a world that I, as a white man, have never and will never experience. I was honored (and a little scared!) that Dr. Day, who is black, would trust me to convey the musical support for these dynamic texts. Dr. Day titled the cycle Black Man: A Toilsome Journey

Recently, I’ve been thinking on one of the texts quite a bit, Minstrel Man

Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song, 
You do not think 
I suffer after
I have held my pain
So long?

Because my mouth 
Is wide with laughter, 
You do not hear
My inner cry? 
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing, 
You do not know 
I die?

If you are unfamiliar with the history of the “Minstrel” performer of 18th and 19th Century America, I encourage some investigation. It is a shameful part of our past, how we stereotyped and de-humanized black people for entertainment. But is it only in our past? We frequently look at artists, entertainers and athletes this way today. We expect them to entertain us, to create a diversion for us, to make us forget about our troubles. Do we remember that these artists, entertainers and athletes are human beings? Do we remember that they have struggles? Do we allow them to have opinions, concerns, or causes? 

When I hear recent comments like “They should just shut up and be grateful for the millions of dollars they make,” I am pessimistic. 

Leave a comment: