My art is the evidence of my freedom.
THORNTON DIAL (1928 – 2016)
The first solo I ever sang in public was a slave song, “Follow the Drinkin’ Gourd’/You gotta keep on a travelin’ dat muddy road to freedom.” My sister and I stood in front of an all-white congregation at my home church in a historically–and still very much–segregated suburb in St. Louis, Missouri.
I am of mixed heritage: white and black. I knew I’d never be considered white, but I didn’t want to be considered black – mixed, yes, but not all black. It’s difficult to admit now, but my reaction grew out of the insidious racism that permeated all circles I socialized within, and the discriminating comments that became normalized.
“You’re so beautiful for a black girl…Not black, golden!”
“You speak so well for a black person…”
“You’d make the ideal house slave. Everything about you, the way you look, the way you speak, your demeanor. You really would be perfect. It’s a great compliment.”
While I was being recognized as a “special sort” of black, I developed a special sort of shame that was a dreaded accompaniment to my external color, so I intentionally left no space to internalize the depths and beauty of my heritage.
My parents did their best to educate my sister and me. One of my first musical memories is listening to my father sing a civil rights song. They took us to countless events, special support groups for mixed families, we both took African-American studies, visited the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee, to walk the rooms and experience the intensity of the movement. (My father’s name is engraved on a brick laid at the museum’s entrance – in some ways his memory is commemorated there, more than where his remains lay.)
“Your father shared a jail cell with Dr. King after a sit-in,” my mother still proudly repeats. “What did you do when you got scared during the protests?” she asked him once. “We sang,” he told her.
But black history, part of the heritage I didn’t want to claim as mine, almost started to take on a myth-like quality; it came to feel inhuman–super or subhuman, I didn’t know… Maybe that was just my young mind trying to wrap around the violent human-on-human brutality that was conveyed by my parents, books, documentaries and exhibits about slavery in this country, and the systematic demoralization against black bodies and minds.
Was it the way it was all presented that made the narratives feel more distant, or I was distancing myself? Although I was moved by the songs themselves, when I heard ritualized singing of Negro Spirituals, they didn’t resonate within me, because I often heard them turned into displays of extreme vocalism; therefore the words, the meaning and deeper purpose of these songs became obscured.
It wasn’t until I finally decided to invest my energies in classical music – a genre that is predominantly written, organized and played by white people of Western descent – that I first considered: Am I denying a part of my identity? Do I know and own all that I am? I began looking at those critical questions, and over the course of my studies was driven to research and find a voice for programing material that not only spoke to me musically, but spoke to some of the other things I needed to address in order to continue on the path of singing publicly.
When I began putting together the programs for this residency, there were almost thirteen pages worth of ideas, and the programs that survived-the-cut were whittled down based on a few criteria, but most importantly: did they reflect the themes that came up for me when I considered artistic institutions in this country?
- marginalization and exploitation of women and “minority groups” in the eyes of our western artistic community, and in particular, the Met museum
- objectification – any human subject when attempted to be represented in a work of plastic art, becomes objectified; as a performer, what is the process of shifting that perspective from that of object to subject. What are the implications of that when presented in a museum setting?
- exoticism and appropriation
- segregation, lack of access, cultural exclusion (even though many institutions appropriate and/or exploit cultural elements of the very communities that they ostracize)
- Art museums are anthropological pursuits, how do we make it a true reflection of those being represented?
- Is it possible to provide a voice for items that are eternally silent; and for beings and stories that have been made silent?
When the five programs for this residency surfaced, a friend asked me:
“So… they are all focused… focused on –”
“On black people?”
“Well… Is that on purpose?”
When I consider my history, the short answer was, and is, yes. Artwork comes from somewhere, it’s not immaculately conceived, it comes from history, it comes from the personal history of an individual who’s trying to express and translate his/her understanding and impressions of the world.
It was so amazing to read the words of the artist, Purvis Young (b. 1943), whose work is featured in the current exhibition History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift:
I just like to read about painters because they have the same problems. Same problems. They look like they see the same thing I see… As you get older, you see more…I try to learn everything I can from the books, documentaries, and everything I got to know… I’m getting to find out some things. Some things you just don’t see in the history books… One way of knowing your environment is understanding the history. . . I want to know if I’m telling the truth, if I’m listening to the truth . . . I get a lot of my ideas … just looking at reality, looking life right straight in its face. . . I look at medieval times and I see history, it repeat itself. I look at ancient history. Same thing now. … I’m tired of seeing the same thing every day, all my life.
Maybe it’s no coincidence that one of the first programs I thought to present at The Met would include a group of slave songs. The slave song is a part of my performance history; a history I didn’t want to explore, or give any attention to for a long time; and while looking closely at The Met, I was asked to look closely at myself.
The initial working title of “History’s Persistent Voice” was “Slave Songs,” because that’s all the material I knew for sure I wanted to present, as it was part of a previous collaboration I had had with composer Jessie Montgomery. In an effort to round out the program, I researched a lot of different, more avant-garde arrangements of traditional Negro Spirituals.
But then two summers ago, I read the lawyer Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy, about his founding of the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama, and bringing awareness to the industrial prison system where ties to Jim Crow and slavery are all too explicit to ignore. In this book he sampled one poem by an inmate, and in tears after reading it, I thought, “What is the 21st century slave song? Who is responsible for writing those lyrics, and what do they sound like?” I wrote to Stevenson to ask if he would share some poetry written by his clients with me. After reading the words of these individuals, I knew this was material that needed to be shared.
Without fully knowing what all of the source material would be, I went to the Met Museum with the idea of commissioning 21st century slave songs to be performed alongside the ones published in the 1867 anthology, Slave Songs of the United States, just after the Civil War. With enthusiasm, I was then told about the exhibition, History Refused to Die: Highlights from the Souls Grown Deep Foundation Gift, that featured the work of black Southeastern American artists and would be on display at the same time as this concert– how brilliant that a majority of the slave songs Jessie and I decided to set were also from the Southeastern Slave States.
I read the transcribed interviews and narratives of the artists that were recorded on the Souls Grown Deep Foundation website, and became overwhelmed by the breadth of material and the overlapping themes between the artists, the inmates, and the slave songs expressed in the language and vocabulary: freedom, seeking, struggle, hardship, work, fight, storms, darkness, light, death, warrior, heaven, home. Then there was the most intense parallel: a few artists disclosed that they had also been incarcerated. The circumstances and connections were real and deep.
We don’t know how most slaves songs originated, or by whom, because historically there wasn’t the ability or maybe even the interest in crediting one person for a composition. What is known is that the songs filtered through generations, so it was important to me that many sources and voices contribute and be involved in expanding the slave song genre–songs developed in order to find an internal freedom and liberation, a release of one’s own voice. Tania Léon, Allison Loggins Hull, Courtney Bryan, and Jessie Montgomery all have a frame of reference for this American music (all women of color, all black Americans–Tania is from Cuba, and I’m including Latin America in that overarching descriptor).
This program is a direct and straightforward way to begin this residency, which looks at art that has an unequivocal link to history; and I feel it is a project that will continue to expand and evolve; because human beings are persistent about using their voices–to help ensure that history will not be denied, dismissed, or buried.
Art is strange-looking stuff and most people don’t understand art. If everybody understand one another, wouldn’t nobody make art. Art is something to open your eyes. Art is for understanding.
Opening Julia Bullock’s Artist Residency at the Met Museum, Bullock sang the words of pioneering Black American mixed-media artist Thornton Dial in a recital featuring traditional slave songs and words penned by Black American artists from the southeastern United States, including the esteemed quilters of Gee’s Bend, Alabama. The texts are set to original compositions for string orchestra by a roster of all-women composers of color including Tania León, Courtney Bryan, Jessie Montgomery, and Allison Loggins-Hull.
METROPOLITAN MUSEUM ART
The Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium (New York, NY)
JULIA BULLOCK IS ‘HISTORY’S PERSISTENT VOICE’ AT THE MET MUSEUM
Clive Pagent, Musical America
The Met Museum may have hit a homerun appointing Julia Bullock as its 2018-19 Artist in Residence…An avowed community activist, wrestling with how art transforms daily lives, is food and drink to Bullock. Her first Met concert on September 15 took a multi-generational approach, using America’s past and present to marry music with the visual arts. By fusing the traditional slave song with the work of Black artists from the American South, and commissioning new works from four contemporary composers, she projected 19th-century music and 20th-century art into the 21st century and beyond. And to compelling effect.
PAINFUL, PERSISTENT ECHOES OF SLAVERY RESOUND IN SONGS
Susan Brodie, Classical Voice America
The lyrics and readings offered an unstinting look at the hardships faced by so many African Americans today, conditions that are tantamount to contemporary slavery: labor exploitation, domestic insecurity, and incarceration. Bullock conveyed tenderness, anger, yearning, grief, and hope with open-hearted fervor and a pliant, bewitching…The 50-minute program, offered without no intermission, felt like a cabaret set thanks to atmospheric lighting, art slides, and spoken text… the soprano’s compelling charisma, musicality, and expressivity conveyed the power of her message.