"What's It Like to be Oppressed?"

One day, during one of my boring piano lessons at Curtis with Eleanor Sokoloff, while I was playing scales and Pischna exercises as usual, out of the blue Mrs. Sokoloff asked me: "What's it like to be oppressed?" I thought about it, and didn't know what to say. This woman was my teacher, after all, and I didn't know if my answer was going to affect my grade or what. It wasn't like I felt like my identity was so strongly tied to the black community, aside from my parents being on the faculty at Fisk University, and my being raised in a segregated black neighborhood and assigned to segregated black public schools. The black children at my school had bullied me mercilessly throughout my years there, perhaps because of my skin-color, or the fact that my mother demanded that I speak correctly and not use any of the slang that they all spoke. In fact, the one place where I was free from bullying was at the music conservatory on the white side of town. That was where I honed my skills, and prepared for my audition for admission to Curtis. The white kids didn't bully me. In fact, they respected and admired my talent.

        The year I auditioned at Curtis, they had three openings in the piano department. Seventy-two pianists came to audition. By the time I arrived there, I had already performed as piano soloist with many orchestras, and had given concerts throughout the country and beyond. Mrs. Sokoloff was appointed to be my primary teacher.

        To answer her question, I think I managed to say something along the lines of, "Well, people are mean to us sometimes," but I didn't have the emotional language to describe the heartbreak of feeling that people saw me as being unacceptable even before getting to know me. I was working so hard to be accepted by whites, and my parents had instilled it in me that classical music was the way to their hearts. I didn't have time to think of myself as a black person. All I could do was focus on being prepared to perform.

        But this white woman's question made it clear to me that she saw me as a black person, first and foremost. Looking outside of my body, it was possible to forget, sometimes, that I was the lone African American in a sea of white. I certainly did not dwell on that fact. I had to function in spite of it. Later, I think I was aware of feeling a sense of disappointment. I certainly did not feel that I had answered her question adequately, but to be made aware that she looked at me and saw a Negro - regardless of how little I associated myself with that category - made me sad. It sank in that there was nothing I could do to win her approval, to say nothing of her love. There were other students whom she clearly loved. She spoke of them often, invited them to her home, had dinners with them, etc. Of course, they were all white.

        I never told my parents of this incident. They were so busy demanding that I do well at Curtis, and not let anything distract me. I carried all of their hopes and dreams on my back. They had finally accepted the reality that America would not grant them success or even acknowledgement as classical musicians, but they were determined that their daughter would have the career that they couldn't have. Little did they know that this woman would do all she could to see to it that I had the same fate.

        Luckily, she was unsuccessful. But it still shocks me as I write this that I was so unprepared for such an encounter. My parents did not prepare me for such racist attacks. I wasn't even allowed to perceive that I was being discriminated against. If I even suspected it, my father would rush to convince me that it was not the case. There must have been some other reason why this - whatever it was - was happening. He was convinced that I was living in a post-Civil Rights era. I would not have to endure the same humiliations that he grew up with. Unfortunately, this made it clear that he could not hear about the discrimination that I endured. I was left to think that the rejections or failures were simply my fault, and I had to work harder.

        I recently started reading the letters of Leonard Bernstein, who also had been a student at Curtis. From the tone of his letters, it is clear that his experience was totally different from mine. Of course he enjoyed the privileges of being a white man, but his writings were so emotional and personal. He was already friends with noted conductors, composers and performers, all of whom were white men. Some were blatantly sexist and made fun of aspiring female musicians. But it was clear that Bernstein was free to feel that he was among “his people” while studying at Curtis. I have never had that feeling. Throughout my youth I was burdened with trying to make myself acceptable among whites, hoping that their grades would be fair, and that they would become helpful and useful contacts as I began my career. I don’t know if the males were fearful that I would want to marry them, or if they intended for me to sleep with them (knowing that I would not). But none of them offered to engage me or help me. None of them stayed in touch. Much later, in the age of the Internet and Facebook, I have found that many of my old classmates are connected, share faculty positions at various schools, participate in various festivals, etc. It seems to be an unspoken rule that white musicians will support other white musicians, but the rest of us are on our own.

        I’ve had it with this blind discrimination and exclusion. It is time to do something! If you are not integrating faculties, orchestras, and festivals, then you are contributing to the problem. I am holding you responsible, and you know who you are!


Nina Kennedy is the author of Practicing for Love: A Memoir ©2019, published by RoseDog Books. You can purchase the book here.


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