Black & white

Mom used to take me with her to see what is generally categorized in the Midwest as community concert series. In my hometown, the performances were usually held in a rather magnificent old theatre, The Missouri. I remember going there for concerts and for movies. Thick carpets and sweeping staircases to the balcony. I loved that place.

blind are color blindThese community concerts were generally touring arts groups from far and wide. Some were interesting, some not so much. But I must confess my affection for anything that could be seen as theatre. I loved acting and music. Any professionally presented theatrical presentation could hold my attention.

But I don’t remember many of them. Except for one. I recall an ensemble group of vocalists who that particular evening presented a program of familiar songs, I believe mostly from movies. They didn’t just stand there and sing. They changed costumes periodically. Sometimes there were many on the stage, sometimes just one, two or three. But when they sang, they did so in the character of those who would have originally recorded or performed those songs. It was a great evening for me watching from the balcony.

But apparently I missed something.

I was probably about 12 or 13 at the time, eighth grade, I suppose. I took weekly piano lessons from a lady who had taught me for six or seven years. I will admit up front that I had grown tired of practicing and having that weekly commitment, but Mom insisted that I develop my talent.

I met with the piano teacher in her home. She had a baby grand piano that seemed to take up most of her living room. It wasn’t a grand home by any stretch of the imagination. She just loved music and teaching it. She was a stickler for detail and she rebuffed any attempts on my part to deviate from exactly what was written on the sheet music. No personal interpretations were allowed. If I didn’t play it exactly the way it was written, I had done it wrong. She had a short fuse about perfection and the need for it. As a kid struggling with self-esteem, I never felt confident about my ability even though she placed me among her best students.

As piano teachers and students do, we usually spent a few opening minutes discussing music we had heard or performances we had seen. I was pleased to report, then, that Mom and I had attended the community concert with the vocal ensemble.

That’s when I found out what I missed.

My teacher raised her voice and her hands in disgust, saying it was the worst thing she had ever seen. I was puzzled as to the problem and my face must have shown my confusion (I would never question her authority) so she got specific. “Those two should never have done that together.”

I had to search my memory for which two she was speaking about and finally I just asked. She pronounced “It’s not right for a white woman and a colored man to sing a love song to each other. It was disgusting the way they touched each other.”

At that point I did remember the two vocalists to which she referred. Ironically, until she mentioned it, I hadn’t noticed the black and white situation. They were just performers to me.

She went on and on about how inappropriate it was and how I should be aware of it (because I obviously wasn’t). She put her arm around my shoulders and said, “How would YOU like to have a colored man touch you like this?”

Well, being an 8th grader, the idea of any man putting his arm around me was a little disconcerting, regardless of color.

I have learned that one of the gifts God gave me was a sense of justice, of right and wrong. I didn’t always pay attention to that when I was younger and I know I committed my own wrongs against people. But confronted for the very first time in my life with obvious racism, I knew something was wrong here. For the first time in my years with this woman, I questioned her. “What was wrong with that? They were acting and singing. What difference did their color make?”

Well, let me tell you that she launched into a diatribe about the difference between white people and colored people and how never the twain should meet.

I felt kind of sick to my stomach. But once I had said my piece, I just didn’t respond to her for the rest of the lesson.

Mom was waiting in the car in the teacher’s driveway when my lesson was finished. I remember distinctly getting in and telling her everything the teacher had said. And I also remember saying, “That’s just not right for her to say those things.”

Funny, but I don’t remember Mother’s reaction to the story. But what I know is that I never returned for another piano lesson. I never had to go back.

Certainly, Mom was getting tired of hearing me complain about practicing and about lessons. But it seems to me that the teacher’s rant about white people and people of color was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

I never knew until I was in my twenties that Mom had a streak of racism in her too. She had grown up near an Indian reservation and I was aghast as we were behind a group of Native Americans heading into town and she quipped, “They’re going in to drink up their government checks.” I still have a hard time believing those words came out of my mother’s mouth. And I said to her, “Mom! I didn’t know you were a racist!” To which she responded, “I’ve tried to do a good job of keeping my opinions to myself so that you could draw your own conclusions. I must have done a pretty good job.”

Indeed, she did. I grew up with kids of color and kids of various religious persuasions. When I moved to an area with many Native Americans, I cherished those new friendships. She never discouraged me from being with any of them.

In my college dorm room I had a poster of a white boy and an African boy with their arms around each other. From the picture you could tell they were both blind. And the caption read, “The blind are also color blind.”

Until that piano teacher told me differently, and even though I had excellent eyesight, I was blind to the difference in color of those artists on the stage at the Missouri Theatre in St. Joseph, Mo., back in the mid-‘60s. Obviously, we have to be taught or encouraged to hate people because they are different than we are. I’m thankful for the sense of justice God gave me and I’m thankful my mother kept her mouth shut.

It’s a good thing, I think, to deviate from what is exactly written on the sheet music. If it feels more right to play the music in a way that God would be pleased, then maybe we can even improve on what has been written for us by others.

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