Friday, February 08, 2008

History At Home | 8. Silken Words & Swashbuckling Violinists

1. From A Land Called Brooklyn,

he came. Hid all day
with the grown. Children

sent from under foot.
Our sentiments slammed

the screen door.
behind us. Splintered

summer heat. Wet nests
in our pores. We sensed time.

Waited for sun down to set off
the streetlight alarm. Then

porch boards yawned
under soft sandals. Creaking

bones fold, children
reveal hiding places

like animals at a water
hole in drought.

Granddad watches. Knife poised
over balsam wood. His lips

part to whittle
Anansi stories to dusk.

2. Silken Words, Homespun Reality

I wrote that poem years ago. In those summer memories, there are at least a dozen neighbourhood children gathered around us. At dinner time, he sent the children home. Many returned within fifteen minutes, money in their pockets and ready for the walk down to the ice cream shoppe. We heard them gathering in yard as we ate. My grandfather never let us rush our dinner. “They’ll wait,” his soft voice surrounded by some strange firm note. He never glanced towards the screen door.

On these nightly walks, he would only hold the hands of my brother and me. The other children had to fight it out to see who could be the one to hold our hands. It was the closest they could ever get to him. This happened between the years of 1968 and 1972. We were the first and only Black family in our neighbourhood. It never struck me until now, how very strange this scene is.

Like my grandfather, my father was also good storyteller. But, he preferred to tell about history. I always loved to listen. When I was growing up, he spent a lot of time on the road building his law firm. Any word from him was precious. As a result, he drew me into this fascinating contemplation of the ways civilisations rose and fell and rose and fell again. Always glory. Always advancements. Always improvements. Always a time of ignorance. Sometimes all of these things happened simultaneously. I learned a lot about cycles from him. I developed a penchant for historical fiction. Then, the hormones exploded.

As a pre and teenager, I loved historical romance novels. I had the most pitiful taste in literature. My parents didn’t care so much. After all, I was reading. I loved the heroines in their swirling gowns. The great grand palaces and plantations suited my sense of style.

As my full figure emerged, I regretted advancements in fashion. After all, hoop skirts and bodices suited me so well. One day, I announced to my father: “I would have been better suited to life in the early 1700’s, but, the early 1800’s be okay.” I’m sure you can imagine his face.

Needless to say, we had a long talk about what exactly was happening with Black folks in those eras. He handled it gracefully. He handled it gently and lovingly. I was still bitterly disappointed.

I never got over the fact that there were no princess dresses for Black girls. No dashing, poetic, sword waving, ponytail-wearing, swashbuckling men for me. No swooning kisses behind the wisteria or at the centre of a boxwood maze. No being grabbed around the waist and carried off into the countryside on a horse. Black girls don’t get these things.

Our glorious stories are ones of tattered hand-me-downs and head rags; digging and brewing roots; stealing the night. Our stories were about astonishing people that you had brains enough to string a few words together to sound human. Your neatly made homespun gowns pressed and tidy and plain. Oh Harriet, Phyllis, and Sojourner - I loved you fiercely - but you did not wear damasck and dance in velvet slippers. (On the other hand, modern girls are much luckier because they have African Princess: The Amazing Lives of Africa's Royal Women, by Joyce Hansen. Illustrated by Laurie McGaw. New York: Hyperion Books, 2004. The link above is not a great review by an author who was obviously content not to have a rich fantasy life in which being a princess was important. )

3. Knights, Swords, & Violins

Almost two years ago, I gave myself over - to the best of my ability - to the Suzuki method. In London, they are very strict. We spent nearly 9 months learning to take the violin in and out of its case; hold it properly; hold the bow. That and we listened to Suzuki Violin Method I -almost - everyday. We made sure to include classical music in our listening repertoire. But, not with the fanaticism a good Suzuki parent will do. I don’t know how my son managed to hold on.

He dutifully listened to his music. But, perhaps it was the download of video by a group called “Nuttin But Stringz” that kept the idea of playing the violin delightful, skilful, and playful. He wanted to be like Damien and Toure. So, he practised.

My husband mentioned a music history class he’d taken in college and suggested that we might go hunting for this fantastic Black composer whose name he couldn’t remember. So, I began to get serious about this mysterious Black composer. Luck brought me stumbling cross .

Here, on this web site was the man I’d been searching for over 32 years, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, Joseph de Bologne. The man with whom my ten year old girl-self would have been smitten. He wasn’t some blustering fictional goober-head. He was a real live Black man from the 1700’s! He was a formidable swordsman, outstanding athlete, a virtuosic violin player, stunning composer, favourite at the court of Versailles during the reign of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, a knight and superb military commander.

From the moment I found him, I have begun a love affair across centuries. Needless to say, his presence dominates my son’s listening time. And our house has begun to fill with any bits and pieces we can find about his life. Below are some better resources which will be more enjoyable than me re-typing his biography here.

After viewing the documentary, Le Mozart Noir, I have resolved to only refer to Mozart now as Le Saint-Georges Blanc. (It’s only fair, one of Mozart’s most famous works is a direct lift from Saint-Georges. Both racism and being on the wrong side of the French revolution have served to advance the works and reputation of Mozart over Saint Georges. It is time in this new era to set the record straight. One things I loved about this documentary is seeing how Saint Georges wrote to showcase his virtuosic talent. Modern violinists revel in his dexterity and often sweat some of the solos.

Take some sneak peeks here:
The dashing swordsman takes up the violin.

The challenging composer and violin virtuoso.

Oh, just vote with your dollars and buy it. And the soundtrack - available on CD - is exquisite. They truly chose some of his best work.

Unfortunately, when one studies the lives of many great Black men, they often end in tragedy. And it is hard to skip around these bits when I hold up these examples. I worry sometimes about this. This must be the hardest part of raising a an African-American boy. We have so much bravery, intelligence, innovation and world-changing role models to so them. So many times, these same uplifting stories end in death, poverty, or obscurity. Maybe this is why young folks today think it’s not such a hot idea to be bright.

Saint Georges is the kind of heroic fairytale character story I want deep within my son's soul. Children's identities are forged from both the fictions and realities we feed them. They need tales of adventure and triumph over adversity. They need damask, lace, swords, knights and velvet slippers, as much as, they need kente cloth, wax prints, cowrie shells, homespun and courage.

My son will go to violin camp next summer. The teacher will ask, "Who is your favoritie composer?" I want him to shout, "Le Chavalier De Saint Georges!" or "Le Chevalier de Meude-Monpas!" Years later - maybe when he is 8 or 10, when the other kids yammer on about Le Saint Georges Blanc, I want him to say, "Mozart? Man, don't you know he stole Saint Georges stuff? Besides, Mozart's life was boring compared to Saint Georges."

Regardless, here are some other lovely ways to continue to experience the man and his legacy:

The Other Mozart: The Life of the Famous Chevalier de Saint-George, by Hugh Brewster. Abrams Books for Young Readers (, 2006 This a lovely picture book about his life. I agree with this reviewer that a recommendation for age 5 is pushing it. I tend to read this book about halfway through with my son.

My son's former violin teacher never returned this CD. Violin Concertos by Black Composers of the 18th and 19th Centuries Mozart's less-familiar contemporaries, Chevalier J.J.O. de Meude-Monpas and Chevalier de Saint-Georges, as well as later composers Joseph White and Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Thanks for listening again.


Richard Greene said...

For a comprehensive listing of 140+ black composers and their cd recordings you should look at:


Christina Springer said...

Thanks for this url, Richard!

Me? I'm just a Mama who is trying to make this instrument relevant to my child. Since we are home educating him, everything becomes an inter-disciplinary lesson. Violin is math, science, history, cultural studies, geography and art.

Because I'm an expert in none of these subjects - all resources are welcome. We are all learning together here.

Ferocious Kitty said...


I get an education every time I visit your blog. My children and I, we all thank you.~Deesha

Christina Springer said...

Aw shucks Deesha, thanks!