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Klarinet Archive - Posting 000142.txt from 2005/05

From: Joseph Wakeling <>
Subj: Re: [kl] Possible racist views in music titles
Date: Fri, 06 May 2005 22:23:35 -0400

dnleeson wrote:

> One of the things that Margaret points out is that a duet in the first
> Rubank book has the title "Danse Negre," or "Negro dance." And the
> problem with titles like that is that you either keep them, change
> them, or stop playing the music to avoid a perpetuation of a time in
> American history that continues to embarass us more and more and
> cultural maturity changes our society almost from minute to minute.

I've never been completely sure about the word "negro" and how offensive
it is. Certainly in Britain I feel it has more of an archaic ring to it
than a racist one. It does have certain patriarchal and colonial
overtones simply by association with the historical period when its use
was most common, but it was widely used even by black writers.

However, I once saw Debussy's "Le petit negre" translated as "The Little
Nigar". How someone could think this minor spelling change made the
word less offensive is beyond me, but there you go. How the word
"negre" is considered in French I'm not sure about but I have the
impression it is not a liked word today; its patriarchal and colonial
associations seem maybe a good deal stronger than "negro".

As for the suggestion that we could translate these things as, e.g.,
"black dance" and ignore the historical context and attitudes that
informed the titling of these works, I think that's a grave mistake.
It's a whitewash (forgive the ghastly pun). What's "black" about "Le
petit negre"? The point is that it's music by a white man who thought
that he could define a characteristic form of "blackness", and *that's*
what's offensive, not the word. In this case it happens to be music by
a great genius and therefore has an internal sense that can be
appreciated quite separately from the title; and this justifies its
continued performance, in my opinion. But we should not forget, ignore
or try to disguise or "sanitize" these other sides of the work.

This sort of thing is discussed at length in Edward Said's
"Orientalism", where he notes how one of the characteristics of that
field of study---and the art that surrounded it---is that it reflects a
power relationship where the white "Occidental" man is able (because of
his greater power) to describe the "Orient" or "Oriental" entirely on
his own terms, without reference to the point of view that the Oriental
him- or herself may have. Moreover this power to describe becomes a way
of reinforcing and justifying *other* powers, for example political
ones: the white man is better suited to decide what is good for the
Oriental than the Oriental himself is, because the white man has a
well-catalogued description of the Oriental and the Oriental does not;
he knows the character of the Orient and Oriental better than the
Oriental himself. (How he *knows* he has a better description than the
Oriental has is a mystery, because the Oriental has never really been
asked; but the Oriental appears to not understand the manner of Western
discourse and therefore must of necessity lack the appropriate capacity
to understand things.)

Such a description/power relationship also extended to music: one of my
cousins wrote his PhD thesis on music of the colonial era, which
included (especially in France) operas written to introduce Westerners
to the strange lands and cultures that they now ruled. The music was
often "descriptive", describing landscape, weather, and other aspects;
it enabled the listeners to come to "know" these foreign countries, and
opera-goers who later visited these countries would come back
proclaiming how it was just like the opera had shown.

What I would suggest is that this helped to reinforce the *Westerner's*
description of the country and deny the possibility of a valid
description or viewpoint from those who were being colonized. This
system of thinking was no doubt useful in enabling Westerners to justify
to themselves the denial of self-determination to others, but it
prevented true understanding and human contact. (Part of Said's thesis
is that the continued presence of this form of analysis in modern
Oriental Studies is a major reason for the political and personal gulf
that exists to this day between Orient and Occident; his book is among
other things a passionate plea for attempts to build international and
personal relationships that are based on mutual involvement, interest
and respect.)

In the same way we have these examples of "negritude" in music and
theatre in America. They act to reinforce an idea of "blackness" that
is, first, a description by white people without the involvement of
blacks, and second, a description that emphasizes the differences
between black and white, in particular emphasizing savagery and
uncivilized and uncouth behaviour on the part of blacks (horribly
ironic, given that the most savage behaviour to be found in America at
the time was arguably that of the lynch mobs who would sieze, horribly
torture and then murder black people to a large extent at random) along
with a benign "happiness" in their condition (slavery and segregation).
Again, I would suggest that this was a manner of reinforcing a political
and social culture that subjugated and denied fundamental rights to
black people.

Such examples continue into the present day and one could no doubt write
a long essay on the presentation both in intellectual discourse and
popular entertainment of men, women, black people, the Middle East, and
so on and so on. The clich├ęs and political implications have changed,
of course. In the case of American discourse much of this seems to be
directed towards creating an image of a society where prejudice is being
abolished, where people live in harmony, and a denial of the fact that
this remains not so in a very big way.

What are we to do about it? In the case of art most of the offending
works will no doubt die due simply to poor quality but the fact remains
that "Le petit negre", "Golliwog's Cakewalk", "The Abduction from the
Seraglio", "The Magic Flute", the operas of Wagner and so on remain
works of great genius; they have an internal sense that gives them a
value despite their racial content. We cannot simply consign them to
the scrapheap. In the case of the Debussy works the racial content is
sufficiently innocent that we might consider it to be no more than a
quirk of the time and enjoy the beautiful music. Mozart and Wagner give
us more problems because the racism is much more explicit.

In some cases it may be possible to do something artistically
interesting with the racial content. For example, Shakespeare's "The
Merchant of Venice" can, without changing a word, be presented as a
strongly anti-racist play instead of the anti-Semitic comedy that was
traditionally performed (and I personally wonder to what extent
Shakespeare may himself have intended it to be so, since there is much
in the text to suggest an anti-racist message). This is easier in
Shakespeare of course because his characterization is so rich; it's
difficult to imagine how to effectively turn around the offending scenes
in "The Magic Flute". Presenting Monostatos as green-skinned instead of
black is a cop-out, a "green-wash". The fact that he's bad because of
being different is offensive enough by itself. Perhaps one could
effectively tell the story as a way in which the forces of tradition
overcome those who would break free of prejudice and restrictions.
There is certainly enough in the libretto for us to wonder to what
extent Sarastro is really a wise and good ruler, since much of his
doctrine seems to consist simply of the perpetuation of male power.

But ultimately, as Lelia has pointed out, I think the only way out in
the long run is one of maturity: to openly acknowledge that works of
genius may have aspects that are deeply offensive to our later culture,
and to use this as an opportunity for discussion and learning rather
than as something to hide, censor or attempt to ignore.

-- Joe

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