This Juneteenth, I find it hard to celebrate.
It is hard to think about freedom in this deafening swell of discord, this crescendo of threats to our most basic human and civil rights. It is difficult to stand upright in this endless storm of violence, to find footing on ground torn by such deep and jagged divisions. Difficult, in such darkness, to believe in the dawn of a better day.
But as we observe this holiday, I must remind myself that freedom has always been hard fought and hard won. All we can do is believe in tomorrow and work to make it better, despite all the evidence and against all odds.
At the turn of the 20th century, sociologist, historian, and civil rights activist WEB Du Bois imagined a world defying the realities of Jim Crow America. In his poem “Credo”, he affirms his belief that everyone deserves “the space to stretch their arms and their soul; the right to breathe and the right to vote, the freedom to choose their friends, to enjoy the sun and rolling on the railroads, not cursed by color; thinking, dreaming, working as they want.” Sixty years later, composer Margaret Bonds drew on his words to write music full of pure passion and breathtaking beauty, even as violence raged and fires burned across America, so that the civil rights movement was fighting for the promise of those same unfulfilled freedoms.
This Juneteenth, I turn to the words of Du Bois and the music of Bonds – to all the lessons of our history. I offer you a collection of music that insists on the promise of freedom, however long it may be. Music that counteracts the screaming dissonance of conflict with the radiant warmth of its harmonies, offering us comfort in our grief and nourishment in our struggle. Songs that root us through the constancy of their rhythms and embrace us in the lines of their melodies. Music that brings us hope, faith and even joy, urging us to rise up and fight another day, reminding us that what we celebrate on this holiday is our freedom to believe, even in the most difficult times.
Lara Downes: “I believe”
In 1964, Margaret Bonds wrote this intimate but infinitely powerful piece of music, inspired by the words of WEB Du Bois’s “Credo”. The feel of these notes under my fingertips reminds me to reflect on the struggles and triumphs that have gone before us and also urges me to gaze past the brightness of what may come next. I appealed to young people across the United States, asking them to share what they believe in, to create a “Creed” for our present, a design for our future. Listen to their words – confident and deeply convinced – and maybe you too will rest easier tonight, knowing that tomorrow is in their hands.
Samora Pinderhughes: “Get Up”
Inspired by the wave of protests against police violence in 2020, this song echoes the protest music of the 1960s in intention and intensity. What grabs me is its juxtaposition of searing fire and cold resolve – the steady, lingering pulse interrupted by moments of hard-hitting explosion. Samora puts it this way: “The first half represents the spirit of uprising and revolt, which requires imagination, courage, strength, organization, scaffolding and fire. The second half represents our fight against thick and thin. Overall, I hope the song reflects that. beautiful quote from abolitionist Mariame Kaba: ‘Hope is a discipline.’ ”
Carlos Simon: “Light”
The freedom to reimagine your reality, to dream of a new life, inspires this first movement of Carlos’ string quartet The warmth of other suns, a musical portrait of the Great Migration. It was a defining American journey, the migration of more than six million black Americans, following a ray of light called hope from the rural south to cities in the north, midwest and west. They left everything and everyone they knew behind, taking only what they could carry. But what they brought with them – their dreams, their courage, their faith in a better future – transformed American life and culture in every possible way.
Leontyne Price: ‘I wish I had known what it would be like to be free’
Leontyne Price sings this gospel-infused civil rights anthem with the choir of Rust College, a historically black institution in Mississippi just hours from where she grew up. His journey from Laurel, Mississippi to the world’s greatest opera stages was fueled by the freedom of music and art to tear down artificial boundaries and barriers of all kinds. One of my most treasured possessions is a photo I took with Mrs. Price when I was a little girl in the children’s choir at the San Francisco Opera. Her generous embrace enveloped us children in the warmth of what a life in music could be like, and I got a bright glimpse into my own future.
Prix de Florence: ‘Juba’ (from Symphony No. 3)
This recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra is proof of our freedom to recover and tell our stories. The recent recovery and revival of Florence Price’s once-forgotten music is a triumphant correction of history. Price’s music speaks volumes about our freedom to simply be ourselves, true to our authentic voice and vision. In her time and place, a black woman seeking entry into the community of symphonic composers was knocking at a formidable door. When Price managed to open that door (though not as far as she would have liked), she brought her ancestors with her, in the melodies and rhythms that permeate her symphonic compositions – echoes of dark spirituals and dances like the Juba, brought to this country by enslaved Africans and seen as an essential outlet for self-expression and celebration, even in the bondage of servitude. Later this summer, I will perform Price’s “Piano Concerto” with this same legendary orchestra. This piece also uses a Juba dance in its final movement, and the composer’s indomitable spirit will uplift us all in moments of transcendent joy.
Jimmie Allen: “Freedom was a highway”
I am haunted by this exuberant tribute to the freedom of youth at full throttle – the wind blowing in your face as you lean out of the car window, the magic of your favorite song, the innocence of a crush ‘childhood. As a parent, as a horrified witness to the untold dangers facing our children today, all I want is to preserve their freedom to enjoy the lazy luxuries of “the days when our dreams were there. to run, but it was better to waste time”, as this song goes. They deserve the freedom to live, laugh and grow fearlessly into the possibility of all their unknown tomorrows.
Billy Strayhorn: “Something to Live For”
At Billy Strayhorn’s funeral, his longtime collaborator and brother in music, Duke Ellington, praised the four freedoms through which Strayhorn lived his remarkable life: “freedom from hate, unconditionally; freedom from all self-pity (even through all the pain and bad news); to be free from fear of possibly doing something that might help another more than he would help himself; and be freed from the kind of pride that could make a man feel better than his brother or neighbor.” This summer I’m playing a new piano concerto based on Strayhorn’s songs and I hold his four freedoms close to my heart as I immerse myself in his music, bringing his legacy to life with some of our greatest American orchestras.
Lara Downes with Tone: “I Dream A World”
Finally, on this holiday of June 16, let us celebrate our ability and our responsibility to “dream a world where all will know the path to sweet freedom”, as this song reminds us with its text from the most tenacious and daring of American dreamers, the poet Langston Hughes.
What is the story behind these photos?
Photographer Eli Reed began his career in 1970. Initially, he was known for his work in El Salvador, Guatemala and other Central American countries.
The celebrated photographer has spent more than 20 years documenting the African-American experience. His book black in america covered the 1970s through the late 1990s and includes the Crown Heights Riots and the Million Man March.
Reed also photographed the effects of poverty on American children for the film. The poorest in the land of plenty.
Copyright 2022 NPR. To learn more, visit https://www.npr.org.