Thanks in part to the incoming Biden administration, we are being treated to another round of long overdue firsts.

If confirmed, Army Gen. Lloyd Austin will become the first Black Secretary of Defense, and Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California, will become the first Latino secretary of Health and Human Services. Alejandro Mayorkas, whose parents immigrated from Cuba to the U.S., has been tapped to be the secretary of Homeland Security, and Janet Yellen will be the first woman to be Treasury Secretary. Cecilia Rouse would be the first woman of color to chair the Council of Economic Advisers, and Neera Tanden would be the first South Asian American and first woman of color to become director of the Office of Management and Budget. Avril Haines would become the first woman to serve as director of national intelligence. 

While Rep. Marcia Fudge would become the second Black woman to lead the Department of Housing and Urban Development (Patricia R. Harris under President Jimmy Carter was the first), she’s still a compelling choice. And, plenty of smart folks are holding out hope that New Mexico Rep. Deb Haaland, an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Laguna and with Jemez Pueblo heritage, will head up the Interior Department, which manages U.S. public lands and Indian affairs.

While it is vital to discuss the candidates on their merits, I’ve been thinking about our now bittersweet ritual of noting—if not always celebrating—trailblazing hires. It’s 2020! This number of “firsts” can feel disheartening. So, it is the bitter part—the opportunity costs associated with the longstanding absence of meaningful representation—that preoccupies me lately.

That said, sometimes my preoccupations take me to some amazing places.

A friend recently shared a link to an extraordinary performance of an orchestral piece by composer Anthony Davis featuring clarinetist Anthony McGill. Both are African American, both are clearly national treasures. And yet, I didn’t know their names until this week.

The piece is called You Have The Right To Remain Silent, and was premiered recently and virtually with the Cincinnati Symphony. It addresses in the starkest musical terms the experience Black and brown communities have with the police and the carceral state. McGill is a revelation, a performance made even more powerful by a socially distant and masked (depending on instrument) orchestra. 

I was utterly unprepared for the emotional jolt of hearing the cry of my community emitted via classical music forms and emanating from the type of stage that has typically leaned more Mozart than McGill. It took me down a rabbit hole of music and left me in awe of the power of representation to transform even a stubbornly white arena, like classical music.

Lost in the swirl of a pandemic-battered year was the extraordinary news that Davis won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize in Music for the opera The Central Park Five. (The librettist was the equally trailblazing playwright Richard Wesley.) The subject, the 1989 arrest and convictions of five Black and Latino teens in the rape of a white woman named Trisha Meili in New York’s Central Park, is still a tender one. The five were exonerated by DNA evidence in 2002. “What I think the artist is trying to get at is empathy,” Davis told NPR.  “In watching it on stage—whether you’re African-American, Caucasian, Asian, whatever—you become one of the five. You feel like you’re the one being interrogated. You feel how you could have been coerced [into giving a false confession]. And then the loss of innocence that the five experienced, that is a very universal emotion.”    

And yet, not a universal impulse for an opera. By way of firsts still to come, Black performers make up less than 2% of orchestras in the U.S., and the Metropolitan Opera still has yet to put on a work by a Black composer.

McGill is the artistic director of the music advancement program at the Julliard School, and the principal clarinet of the New York Philharmonic, its first African American principal player. This year, he won the Avery Fisher prize for his extraordinary body of work, which is inextricably linked with his anti-racist activism and resolve to increase representation in classical music and education.

This past spring, McGill launched the #TakeTwoKnees performance series, and spoke directly to the murder of George Floyd and our unresolved history. “What the news this week and most weeks of my life demonstrates, however, is that Black lives didn’t matter in our glorified past, and still don’t matter that much today,” he wrote on Facebook.

One of his #TakeTwoKnees performances is called #MEMORIALforUSALL, which acknowledged by name some of the people lost in the U.S. during the twin pandemics of COVID and racism. “We are also battling another serious illness—racism—a plague upon our nation since its founding, and we are still struggling for equality,” he said in his opening remarks.

If you’re going to head down a classical music rabbit hole anytime soon, and I sure hope you do, start there. It ends with McGill’s poignant, minor key arrangement of “America the Beautiful,” as sweet as it is bitter. Trust me on this.

I now think of it as the perfect musical soundtrack for all the overdue firsts we’re celebrating now, and all those still yet to come.

Ellen McGirt

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