My brother is Awadagin Pratt. The first African-American to win the Naumburg International piano competition in 1992.
I know his story. He is my brother. Our journeys overlap, intersect, and run along side each other. He went to school at University of Illinois – Urbana-Champaign. He experienced the racism there. He was there when the racist Indian mascot paraded around athletics events in the 1980s.
I worked there for 9 years. I was there in 2007, when the mascot stopped parading around openly, only to be reimagined underground in even more troubling manifestations of racism.
We had the same parents. Theodore and Mildred. Theodore, the brilliant nuclear physicist with a PhD in Nuclear Physics from Carnegie Mellon in 1968. The faculty member that had his career snatched away by racism.
Mildred, born in 1928, child of sharecroppers, product of segregation, a career of fighting race and sexism to take her place in the academy as a full professor when less than 1% of Black women were full professors in 1980. I wrote her life story in A Black Woman’s Journey from Cotton Picking to College Professors: Lessons about Race, Class, and Gender in America.
My brother and I, a year, a month, and a day apart. We had the same life as children, before he went to college at 16. Waking up at early; playing tennis before school; having piano and violin lessons, part of a Pratt Setup, as my father called it to be independent from the American system of racism.
And, we are together a product of that system – both full professors in the academy. We survived. We survived the tenuousness and precariousness of people of color in the Academy
My brother recently released an announcement of his Art of the Piano event.
Notice his comment: “They must resort to giving affirmations, because they have not made affirmative actions. Funny how that term became such a fraught phrase. And yet it’s such a supremely positive phrase. Affirmative action. I affirm my belief, and I act upon it.”
Affirmative Action was about putting extra effort – recruiting to identify minority talent and then hiring that talent. It became contorted in a bizarre ahistorical interpretation of the 14th Amendment to protect White Americans. But, it was just about find “qualified minorities” that were presumed to not exist. I have dedicated my career to finding “us” and creating opportunities for us.
Listen to him playing classical music and speaking about racism in America. He talks about desegregation, busing, the right to mouth off to police officers, fear and powerlessness, high blood pressure in Black Americans, and what it means to be stopped by the police for merely driving while Black. Listen to his discussion of being arrested for running late to a rehearsal with his violin at Peabody. Listen to his discussion of being followed by police. Listen to his discussion of getting pulled over for not using a turn signal coming out of a parking garage.
And it is irrelevant that he is also a three-time guest of presidents
(Clinton and Obama); that he is the first triple major musician (piano, violin, and conducting) from Peabody Music Conservatory; that he has played at concert stages across the world; that he has performed recitals, and played with major orchestras throughout the United States; that internationally,he has toured Japan four times and performed in Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Poland, Israel and South Africa.
None of that matters. The only thing that does matter is his Black
You will hear his brilliance. A brilliant mind that references legal cases; legal rights; civil rights. As a Black person in America, though, knowing your rights is irrelevant. You are not entitled to them. Good for you, though. You can read.
Listen. Listen to how the music creates a backdrop for his reflection. He plays one of my favorite pieces—so powerful that it makes my heart jump each time. Liszt: Funérailles (Harmonies poétiques er religieuses, No. VII)
This song and its left hand chords are sheer dominance of the instrument. It provides a space and place for the rage of Blackness, for the keys have the power to absorb the anger and transform the anger into harmonies, melodies, and music.
It is a song of energy, power, movement, grace, intertwined melodies and complexity. What it means in music to be Black in America. Awadagin and I have always navigated two worlds. His world has often been a White Classical music world. But, he is Black.
I have always been amazed at the excitement of largely older White men and women after his concerts. It is as if he isn’t real. Can a Black man with dreadlocks really play classical piano? When they go up to him after a concert for an autograph or to shake his hand and touch a Black hand for the first time, they are authentically enchanted. The music has transformed and transported them, if for a moment, out of their racism.
You cannot experience Awadagin with out experiencing the power of music to move your soul. His playing does that. He plays from a depth of knowledge of the soul that knows that suffering of Black people…that knows the historical suffering, the Blackness that has known the rivers that Langston Hughes speaks of in
The Negro Speaks of Rivers
I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the
flow of human blood in human veins.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln
went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy
bosom turn all golden in the sunset.
I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.
My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
Awadagin knows that to many of the White people at his concerts, and the wealthy benefactors that host him in their homes after the concert, he is their “one Black friend.”
But to them, he isn’t really Black,; he is an anomaly, an amazing musician and they wonder, I think – why is he Black? Too bad, he is……Black. I mean, many can hardly say the word: Black.
But Awadagin is so gracious and kind. And for many of them, he has become, their “one and only Black friend.”
I, too, know what it means to be the “one and only Black friend.” You don’t know what jokes you should laugh at, or if the jokes are really funny, or maybe even about you and your culture. You don’t want to stay long at social events. You stand out. You are the only.
But we, he, and I have survived. We do, though, have other responsibilities besides being the “one and only Black friend.” There are ways for White people to do more and do better. There is an imperative. In this YouTube Conversation between my colleague, an Italian-American and me, we talk about Whiteness, anti-Blackness, and anti-racism. We talk about specific and concrete actions White people can undertake to address individual and institutional racism in the context of the 400 year history of America’s racism.
What really matters, though, is love. I have always appreciated Awadagin’s love for me. Hosting a big party for my big 50 birthday. Inviting me and mama to the White House each time when he went to be with the “big and powerful” people in the world. Showing up at the University of Illinois after our mother died to surprise me at a diversity award program. I’m grateful for his life and his reminder of the power of discipline and talent to create excellence. I’m grateful for his reminder through his life of the power of music to transform.