Music: A Cultural Expression of Identity

**This blog is a repost as we invite you to join us for a series of events with Violins of Hope Birmingham, April 11-14, 2018. The centerpiece of the project will be the Violins of Hope Concert at the Alys Stephens Center on April 14, 2018, featuring the Alabama Symphony Orchestra under the baton of Music Director, Carlos Izcaray. 

a picture of a unique violin
violin. Source: z s, Creative Commons

If identity were a sound, what would it sound like? For Jews, it sounds like the notes that rise from the striking of the bow across the tension of the strings on a violin. Elie Wiesel, in Night, writes of a brief encounter with Juliek, a dying violinist. This encounter, without full understanding of the context and the role of the violin in Jewish culture, may remain overlooked and misunderstood. It did for me until I began researching for this blog.

Violins, often heard in a piece of classical music, a genre that as Wang describes as “a special form of culture widely defined within an ideological and social sphere in people’s everyday life”, speak to the universal accessibility of music and the cultural complexity of creative expression within the social identity of Jewish people. “Always when people asked Isaac Stern why so many Jewish people are playing the violin, his answer was very simple: ‘It is the easiest instrument to pick it up and to run away!'” The embedding of music in Jewish tradition resulted from their persecution. Music provided a refuge and an outlet for emotional expression, whether pain or joy because music has the power to transcend.

A violinist is an essential figure within the sociocultural dynamic of Jewish high society. Gilman, highlighting the life of Albert Einstein, explains how the violin is “an emblem of the integration of the Jews into Western high culture… [and] links both personal and historical meanings.” Spotts insists that to the Nazis, “Theater, music, art, and literature were inherently ennobling, unless… practiced by the Jews.” Music for Einstein and other Jews allowed for the continuous expression and validation of individuality, in conjunction with and apart from religion. Conductor Franz Welser-Most maintains, “An instrument becomes part of the person which plays it. It’s the voice of that person comes through the instrument.” Violinists and their violins reinforced the humanity of all Jewish people, thereby undermining Nazi anti-Semitic ideology.

Albrecht considers art, including music, an institution. He identifies three characteristics of art: structure, function, and universality. The institution of art exists within the social structures of a society due to the ability of music to fulfill the human psychological need for creativity. While conceding that art is not a primary institution, one needed for the survival of society, he does suggest that it should no longer remain a secondary (or throwaway) institution either. Art should remain as important as religion, philosophy, and science. In other words, societies needs to recover the value of art by understanding its characteristics.

First, the structure of art is expressive and social, exposing what Parsons defines as “the paradigm of social interaction”. The paradigm of social interaction is the triad reciprocal relationship among the author, the critic, and the public based upon a supply and demand existence, or needs-based approach. For Parsons, human behavior consists of patterns of belief systems, which incorporate and appropriate objects, like violins, into the fabric of an individual or group experience based upon meaning. The repetition of the pattern creates a culture that, over time, produces a heritage. For Bortolotto, “Heritage is created …with authenticity understood as an important quality in the perpetuation of a sense of historical continuity and cultural ancestry.” Therefore, the social structure of art features this triadic interaction over a period and this historical interaction creates solidarity. Art is an essential link in the network of social and cultural relations.

Second, art satisfies curiosity, creates balance, and reduces stress. Spencer concludes that art permits “prolonged rest of the nerve-centers, which build up energy in excess of demands for immediate instrumental activities”, creating a satisfaction that comes from being a part of art through its creation or experience rather than simply participating in it. Weber equates art with ‘salvation’; not salvation as in eternal life but salvation that comes as a means of transcending one’s immediate situation or circumstance. Art allows for momentary escape; this quality contributes to the enrichment and augmentation of an individual and society.

Lastly, art is universal. Hoebel asserts, “Man could survive without art; yet man and art are inseparable.” Human beings are creative beings, yet the limitations of art classification detach the social and cultural significance of artwork or performance, whether it be resistance or propaganda. Take rap as an example. Martinez argues rap of the late 1980s and early 1990s utilizes lyrics and sounds as a form of expressing resistance to some cultural norms about music, and as propaganda when considering the urban decay of black communities, in direct contrast to white communities. In other words, regardless of classification, art, including music, possesses the power to influence, to give voice to the minority, and to symbolize resistance.

Amnon Weinstein is a violinmaker. More than 50 years ago, a customer brought him an old violin in need of restoration. Unplayed violins lose their sound and their spirit over time; therefore, a well-played instrument sounds richer and more open. Weinstein, over the course of the conversation, learned that the owner, a Holocaust survivor, “had played on the violin on the way to the gas chamber, but he survived because the Germans needed him for their death camp orchestra.” When the Nazis outlawed prayer, Jewish violinists played as a means of communion and defiance. “And just knowing that some of these people who have owned these instruments did not survive, but their personality is still within these instruments, I find that very moving”, acknowledges Welser-Most. The restoration of more than 30 Holocaust violins has become Weinstein’s method of harnessing the power of music to influence, returning voice to the minority, and to continually cultivating a resistance against the cruelty of the Holocaust and the silence that descended when the war concluded, by listening to the stories told by the violins.

This Sunday, September 17, 2pm at Temple Emanu-El, musicologist and author James A. Grymes will discuss his book, Violins of Hope: Instruments of Hope and Liberation in Mankind’s Darkest Hour, and the work of Amnon Weinstein. Event organizer Sallie Downs, when asked what inspired her to bring the Violins of Hope story to Birmingham, replied:

I am free to bring them; and they are free to come. All musicians, regardless of who they are and what they believe, are free to play the instruments when they want and where they want, and they are free to play whatever music they wish to play. Jewish musicians didn’t have that opportunity. They did nothing wrong. They were persecuted and too many people didn’t believe it could happen and they stood by until it was out of control. With all the hate and evil we are witnessing in this country, and the ignorance and resignation with which it is viewed, I can’t stand by quietly and do nothing. G-d help me, if I ever find myself on the wrong side of a barbed-wire fence, like those who were tortured and murdered during the Holocaust for no good reason, I will never regret that I did nothing when I had the opportunity to do something. The power of music on the Violins of Hope is a call to action. The Violins are giving voice to the voiceless and providing us an opportunity to help them say “Never again will good people stand idly by and watch innocent life be desecrated.  Never again will we allow the voices of the weak to be silenced.” Not here. Never again.

Violins of Hope is a bearer of intangible cultural heritage. By “establishing a relationship with the past by turning it into an authentic historical object”, Weinstein who restores the violins, and the musicians who play them, are “encouraging social practices that allow cultural objects and expressions to be produced and performed by community members”; thereby creating a living exhibition maintaining a focus on perpetuity.

Civil Rights for Blacks, Human Rights for Whites (and Everyone Else)? Reclaiming the Black Human Rights Tradition

by TONDRA L. LODER-JACKSON, PhD.

African American school children entering the Mary E. Branch School at S. Main Street and Griffin Boulevard, Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia
African American school children entering the Mary E. Branch School at S. Main Street and Griffin Boulevard, Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia. Source: Library of Congress, Creative Commons.

Black History Month’s conclusion seems to me an opportune time for reflecting on America’s age-old tension between supporting civil rights versus human rights. As an African American woman educator, I have observed this tension among students, colleagues, community members, and the national media. The paraphrased statements below capture the essence of some of my personal encounters.

“I must admit I was initially resistant to your requirement to attend [the Holocaust-themed film] Paper Clips in a course focused on the Civil Rights Movement.”- A former African American woman graduate student

“I cannot justify investing in international human rights when Black folks in America have so many unresolved problems.” – An African American woman colleague

“I have never heard an African American speak about antisemitism.” – A Jewish woman civic leader’s public comment after an African American woman scholar’s human rights symposium keynote

“Why it Hurts When the World Loves Everyone But Us” – A Black Internet media headline highlighting the outpouring of support for emerging student gun control activists in the aftermath of the February 14, 2018 Parkland, Florida school shooting

These encounters, particularly my own disquiet with the optics of the media’s portrayal of (welcomed) nationwide empathy for school shooting victims and survivors contrasted with (ill-informed) public antipathy of The Movement for Black Lives, prompt me to pose a few questions, and retrace, in hopes of helping African Americans (and others) reclaim, our longstanding tradition of advancing human rights.

A Problem of Scope?

Why so much dissonance about what I consider symbiotic rights? Is a hierarchy of scope culpable? Civil rights – generally defined as an individual’s rights to be treated equally under typically federal law in public arenas such as housing, education, employment, public accommodations, and many more – are quite often viewed as too narrow, too mid-20th century, too Black. In contrast, human rights are defined more expansively as rights “inherent to all human beings, regardless of race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, religion, or any other status”. Human rights are generally viewed as being international in scope – that is, focused on human beings beyond, but tacitly excluding human beings within, the continental United States.

Yet, there are key historical moments when Black leaders in the United States strategically elevated America’s civil rights violations to international human rights violations. W. E. B. Du Bois espoused an unwavering belief in the indivisibility of national and international human rights for people of African descent. Likewise, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. used his platform as a civil rights leader to speak out against apartheid in South Africa, global poverty, and the Vietnam War. Four other notables, Malcolm X, Ralph Bunche, Mary McLeod Bethune, and Ida B. Wells-Barnett, also used their platforms as Black leaders to address international human rights. These leaders embodied polarities of diverse Black intellectual thought yet shared the view that advancing Black civil rights constituted a legitimate and worthy human rights agenda, particularly when linked to the destinies of Africans in the Diaspora.

Malcolm X (1925-1965)

After his exile from the Nation of Islam, and on the heels of his transformative pilgrimage to Mecca in April 1964, Malcolm X launched a campaign to persuade African states represented in the United Nations to bring charges against the United States’ oppression of what he then termed Afro-Americans. Malcolm X told friends in New York that he aimed to “internationalize” the Afro-American question at the United Nations in a manner similar to how South African apartheid was elevated as an international problem. The contents of an eight-page memorandum Malcolm X drafted and delivered to African heads of state at a conference in Cairo, Egypt convinced U. S. government officials of his potential for influential global leadership. They surmised that if “Malcolm X succeeded in convincing just one African Government to bring up the charge at the United Nations, the United States Government would be faced with a touchy problem”. Malcolm X suspected that the FBI and CIA demonstrated a particular clandestine interest in his aims for Afro-American advancement once he focused on internationalizing his agenda.

a picture of Ralph Bunche during conference on peace in Geneva, Switzerland
Atoms for Peace. “Closing sessions of the Atoms for Peace Conference”. Seen here at the closing session of the International Conference on the Peaceful Uses of Atomic Energy which opened here on 8 August are (left to right), Mr. Ilya S. Tchernychev and Dr. Ralph J. Bunche, Under Secretaries of the UN without Portfolio, and Dr. Homi J. Bhabha from India, President of the Conference. (Geneva, Switzerland, August 20, 1955) Source: IAEA Imagebank, Creative Commons.

Ralph Bunche (1904-1971)

Ironically, Malcolm X publicly criticized another Black leader, who shared similar human rights aims albeit not means, as a “Black man who didn’t know his history”. Ralph Bunche, whose role as a civil and human rights leader remains woefully overshadowed in American history, was the first African American to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1950 for brokering the 1949 Armistice Agreements in the Middle East. Known as a consummate diplomat, Bunche helped found the United Nations, soliciting First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt’s support in establishing its treaties. Bunche also supported civil rights causes and was among a group of African American intellectuals W. E. B. Du Bois coined the “Young Turks.” He influenced Dr. King and other civil rights leaders and participated in the 1963 March on Washington and the 1965 Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March. He also served on the board for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Mary McLeod Bethune (1875-1955)

Mary McLeod Bethune leveraged her accomplishments as the founder of Bethune-Cookman College, a national Colored Women’s Club leader, and a civil rights leader, to become a stateswoman for international human rights. As historian Paula Giddings noted, “Bethune knew how to cajole, praise, apply the right pressure here and there, to move toward a group consensus”. Joining ranks with Bunche and Du Bois as NAACP leaders, Bethune represented the organization at the 1945 founding of the United Nations. In the early 1950s President Harry Truman appointed her to a national defense committee and to serve as an official delegate to a presidential inauguration in Liberia. Bethune and Bunche were among a few Black Americans who had the ear of U. S. Presidents and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, enabling them to elevate their causes for African Americans to an international platform.

a picture of civil rights leader Ida B. Wells
Ida B. Wells-Barnett. Source: Eleanor Jaekel, Creative Commons.

Ida B. Wells-Barnett (1862-1931)

Bethune once vied successfully against Ida B. Wells-Barnett in 1924 to become president of the National Association of Colored Women (NACW). Both well respected in the Black community, quite similar to Malcolm X and Bunche, they subscribed to different schools of Black political thought. Wells-Barnett was a fiery activist who openly criticized Booker T. Washington’s accommodationist stance on advancing Black progress. Her public attacks were taken none too lightly by NACW leader Mary Church Terrell whom Wells-Barnett once accused of excluding her from the 1899 convention of the NACW. Terrell’s enthusiasm and support for Bethune’s NACW candidacy over Wells-Barnett’s was ill-concealed. Despite these differences, Wells-Barnett joined ranks with Black women and men to expose the atrocities of American lynching to an international audience, drawing national attention and scrutiny. As Giddings noted, “A local antilynching campaign was one thing; an international one was quite another”.

Forging New Human Rights Alliances in the 21st Century

One historical lesson from the experiences of Black human rights leaders is that they forged successful alliances both within and outside of their race to advance civil and human rights. I see hopeful signs of this legacy among younger generations. Notably, twice during this academic year, I have been fortunate to participate in human rights symposia co-sponsored by the U. S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Campus Outreach Program, Birmingham higher education institutions, and local Holocaust and civil rights education organizations. These two symposia, hosted at the historically Black Miles College last fall and the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) last week, juxtaposed holocaust experiences in Nazi Germany and the Jim Crow South with meticulous and empathic attention to balancing the unique perspectives and representing the diverse identities of survivors and descendants of these atrocities. The Miles College symposium, according to its organizers the first ever hosted by a Historically Black College and University (HBCU), expectedly drew a predominantly African American audience with a notable number of Whites and other racial/ethnic groups whereas the UAB symposium was fairly racially/ethnically diverse. The symposium brought together a total of 413 attendees, 37 presenters, and moderators from 18 different universities and institutions in 7 states (plus DC), representing 17 different academic disciplines and programs.

I applaud these efforts because they are reminiscent of Black-Jewish alliances in the 19th and 20th centuries that helped advance Black and Jewish representation in American education. For example, the alliance between Birmingham’s Black community and Jewish school leader Samuel Ullman to establish Black schools in slavery’s aftermath. There is also the more familiar alliance between Booker T. Washington and Sears and Roebuck magnate Julius Rosenwald to build thousands of schools for Black children all across the South and extending to the Southwest and Mid-Atlantic states. Rosenwald once proclaimed in a speech: “We like to look down on the Russians because of the way they treat the Jews, and yet we turn around and the way we treat our African-Americans is not much better”. Together, Washington and Rosenwald, with the inestimable support of local Black communities, built nearly 5,000 schools with an estimated $4 million investment from the Rosenwald Project. Finally, there is the alliance between Jewish professors and HBCUs in the 1930s and 1940s highlighted in From Swastikas to Jim Crow. The U.S. South was once a safe haven for a number of Jewish intellectuals who fled Nazi oppression. Many Jewish professors found it difficult to find university jobs in the United States, especially at elite institutions; and even when they did, some were denied tenure for their socialist and religious orientations. Black colleagues at HBCUs were generally sympathetic to their new Jewish colleagues and helped socialize them to the Jim Crow South. The Jewish academics were often astounded by race relations in the South. One professor recounted that when a kind Black colleague gave him a ride home, the apartment manager called him into the office to complain that he had “Negro visitors who were not cleaning ladies or something like that.” A neighbor later warned him that if he did not cease bringing Negroes to the neighborhood that the neighbor would shoot – not at him but at his Black colleague.

History has taught us that forging alliances to address civil and human rights is never easy. These alliances have always been fraught with ideological, racial, cultural, socioeconomic, gender, and countless other differences. There have always been tensions between the aims of mobilizing intra-racial alliances (Malcolm X’s post-Mecca concession that “Whites can help us but they can’t join us.”) versus interracial alliances. Yet no real social movement has occurred without them. Dr. King’s prophetic treatise on human rights penned as a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” resonates today:

“In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be.”

 

Tondra L. Loder-Jackson, PhD is an associate professor at UAB holding a primary appointment in The School of Education and a secondary appointment in The College of Arts and Sciences’ African American Studies Program. She is the author of Schoolhouse Activists: African American Educators and the Long Birmingham Civil Rights Movement.