Conference Morsel: Racial Compartmentalization
Date: May 15, 2014
(An excerpt from the interest session “Diversity within the Philosophy of an Afro-Canadian Composer,” presented by Wallace McClain Cheatham during the 2014 ACDA North Central Division Conference)
Composers who are of an African ancestry and are exponents of western music genres, regardless of nationality, are marginalized by audiences, those who make decisions about programming and publication, and their own people who are performing artists. Some of the arguments that are often brought forth in discussions about the "why" of this marginalization are not Black enough, too far removed from their cultural ethnicities, and limited potential for marketing and broad appeal. Nevertheless, there is always at least one composer, or a small group of composers, within each of these populations, who refuse to be defined, even when the prejudice comes from members of their own race, by stereotypical thought and perception.
Robert Nathaniel Dett (1882-1943), an ArfoCanadian composer and a towering figure in music history, is one of those personalities. Dett's overall compositional philosophy was to bring the sophistication of European musical architecture to African American folksong. Dett's philosophy was first recorded in the literature shortly after his 1908 graduation from Oberlin Conservatory of Music. Dett's philosophy of composition reached its apex in "The Ordering of Moses": an oratorio for chorus, four vocal soloists, and orchestra. "The Ordering of Moses," Dett's Master of Music degree thesis at Eastman School of Music, is clearly his most inspired score.
Racial compartmentalization yet strongly remains a part of our sociological landscape. The continuing existence of racial compartmentalization keeps a comprehensive programming of music by "African composers" a difficult goal to attain. The African Music Diaspora must be totally embraced: with all of its complexities and broad ramifications.