Should They Always Be Exceptional? (Tropes of Black Composers, Part 3)

Should They Always Be Exceptional? (Tropes of Black Composers, Part 3)

Jackie Robinson w/ Dodgers teammates, 1953. Museum of the City of New York

Jackie Robinson w/ Dodgers teammates, 1953. Museum of the City of New York

“To hear these people talk, you’d think Jackie Robinson grew up like a mushroom in the jungle somewhere and Branch Rickey was on some kind of rare-species hunt and stumbled over him. Well, if Rickey was after the rare, he didn’t find it in that player. Robinson is a dime a dozen in a long established league. The Negro American League, to be exact, whose teams play against the Negro National League. Organized baseball, just not recognized baseball.” p. 11.

Bailey, the first character we encounter in Gloria Naylor’s Bailey’s Cafe (1992), brings us a pertinent critique of integration via his love of baseball. His critique is not directed towards Robinson; instead, Bailey addresses the structural limitations of integration: where the players come from a variety of racial backgrounds but the owners and managers remain predominately white; where a few performers and composers of color are programmed on 1–2 concert per season, sometimes in the same day; where major institutions bemoan the lack of diversity but ignore predominately Black classical music organizations, institutions, and communities. This lack of reparative networking makes real the lie that the people of color who “make it” in predominately white mainstream spaces are “a dime a dozen.” But just like Jackie Robinson, they are actually one of many.

Bailey’s Café  - Gloria Naylor (1992)

Bailey’s Café - Gloria Naylor (1992)

Exceptional: a high standard of talent and ability that one rarely encounters. To be exceptional is to be seen;. Respected. Emulated. Put on a pedestal. An exceptional person is worthy of remembrance. And sometimes exceptional people are referenced to reinforce systemic inequalities. Describing a Black person as “exceptional” is not often the compliment it may appear to be; it legitimizes the practice of racial discrimination and segregation by positioning the few racially marginalized people in the predominately white room as the “only qualified ones” to be in that space.

Inclusion in those spaces could sometimes lead to professional and financial stability. Burleigh’s career is emblematic of this. His hiring at St. Georges would not have been possible without the following: National Conservatory of Music’s founder, Jeanette Thurber, forwarding Burleigh’s name to Rev. William S. Rainsford; Rainsford’s holding of blind auditions to ensure all applicants were judged fairly; and JP Morgan’s pledge to cover the financial gaps left by members who refused to support a church who dared hire an African American baritone soloist.

H T. Burleigh

H T. Burleigh

What matters here is not that Burleigh had white allies in his corner but the methods of support these individuals provided; they ensured Burleigh had the opportunity to put his hat in the ring and that his employment would not be jeopardized due to protest by racist congregation members. But such support is more straightforward when one person is concerned. Thousands of Burleigh’s Black colleagues were not always able to connect with such individuals. This made organizations for Black classical musicians necessary and urgent.

Burleigh’s presence in white and Black classical music spaces was not only a matter of who he wanted to collaborate with but who he needed to collaborate with if he was to make a viable living as a classical musician. His involvement with organizations like the National Association of Negro Musicians (NANM) and mentorship of fellow professionals was not only beneficial to those parties; his networking with Black musicians provided another essential support system for his career. NANM’s institutional work created spaces for Black classical musicians to access resources that were systemically denied them during the Jim Crow era and which remain difficult to access even with the help of white allies and Black-founded music organizations, symphonic groups, and opera companies in the present day.

As one of a few Black kids in my music classes, I often wondered where we were. Now I know we didn’t go anywhere; we weren’t excluded to the point we didn’t study, perform, or compose within the western classical music tradition. My problem as a Black girl violinist looking for people that looked like me in my classes and history books wasn’t that more Black folx didn’t play classical music; I just wasn’t connected to those networks, I didn’t grow up or work with those communities where to see a Black person play in a western classical style was an ordinary thing.

Cast of  Aida , National Negro Opera Company (1954). Photographer: Charles “Teenie” Harris

Cast of Aida, National Negro Opera Company (1954). Photographer: Charles “Teenie” Harris

There are communities of Black classical musicians that the mainstream will never see because they don’t know or don’t care to look; it would require an upset of the systems of power. Racial segregation functions to keep resources in the hands of a segment of the white populace. Not only related to food and property ownership, but to education, political representation, and materials for creative exploration (music, art, film, theatre). If racial equity and equality are to be obtained in the United States’ classical music scene, one cannot look to the same pipelines. There are other networks and creative spaces bursting with successful and skilled musicians; none a dime a dozen, but part of an organized Black classical music community, just not a recognized classical music community.

Saying classical music has issues with racism is nothing new; to say its major institutions need to reach out to communities of color is nothing new. To say they need to reach out to communities of color as individuals with the same amount of knowledge, experience, and skills is long over due; and some may not be too interested in joining spaces that have been ambivalent or hostile to their presence for more than a century.


Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, “The Central Frames of Color-Blind Racism,” in Racism without Racists: Color-Blind Racism and the Persistence of Racial Inequality in America (2014)

Samantha Ege, “Fantasie Negre: Realization of a Black Girl’s Fantasy,” Music Herstories, Feb 6, 2019

Kaitlyn Greenidge, Twitter Thread on Segregation, July 11, 2019

Cheryl Harris, “Whiteness as Property,” in Critical Race Theory: The Key Writings that Formed the Movement, eds. Kimberlé Crenshaw, Neil Gotanda, Gary Peller, and Kendall Thomas (1995)

Nebal Maysaud, “It’s Time to Let Classical Music Die,” New Music Box, Jun 24, 2019

Doris McGinty, A Documentary History of the National Association of Negro Musicians (2004)

Douglas Shadle, Twitter Thread on Florence B. Price in 2018, Nov 17, 2018

Jon Silpayamanant, “Diversity in Classical Music vs Diversity of Classical Music,” Mae Mei, Jul 18, 2018

Jean Snyder, Harry T. Burleigh: From the Spiritual to the Harlem Renaissance, (2016) pp. 214–216

Kira Thurman, “Historicizing the Diversity Problem in American Classical Music,” Schenkerian Gang Signs, Jul 13, 2016

_______, “Singing Against the Grain: Playing Beethoven in the #BlackLivesMatter Era,” The Point, Sep 29, 2018

Further Reading

Bailey’s Café - Gloria Naylor, 1992.

Harry T. Burleigh: From Spirituals to the Harlem Renaissance - Jean Snyder, pp.

Jackie Robinson Exhibit Celebrates 100 Years Since Baseball Icon’s Birth (Jan 2019) by Cory Oldweiler. AM New York.

Getting the Music Out There: Recording Music by Black Composers

Getting the Music Out There: Recording Music by Black Composers