By Tara Cavanaugh, AAPS News Service
Special guests at Lawton Elementary’s Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration brought history to life on Friday, Jan. 13.
Public Radio International co-host Celeste Headlee, conductor John McLaughlin Williams and vocal performer Daniel Washington taught students a valuable lesson about the history of African Americans.
Headlee is the granddaughter of William Grant Still, who is regarded as the “Dean of African American composers.” She told students about the challenges her grandfather faced in order to become a respected composer. He dreamed of writing classical music at a time when the only acceptable music for African Americans was jazz played in honkey-tonks, Headlee explained.
Through persistence, luck and education, Still did become a famous composer. His accomplishments were numerous, but he was still affected by the discriminatory laws of his time. Headlee shared one example: Still won a contest to compose the theme music for the 1939 World Fair, but in order to attend the fair outside of “Negro Day,” he needed a police escort for his safety.
Headlee told the students that when considering the accomplishments of someone like her grandfather or Dr. King, “you have to remember that doing it then was so much harder than now. That can help you be a little more grateful for what we all have. And it also makes us aware of what you are able to accomplish. Because if they did that then, think of what you can do now.”
A classically trained soprano, Headlee performed two songs, “Citadel” and “Brown Baby,” her silvery voice soaring effortlessly through the cafeteria without the help of a microphone. Williams, the first African American conductor to win a Grammy, accompanied her on the violin.
Washington, who also serves as the Associate Dean for Minority Services at the University of Michigan School of Music, Theatre and Dance, read excerpts from “I Have a Dream,” his voice booming with the powerful words of Dr. King’s famous speech.
“There is no such thing as ‘black history,’” Headlee told the students. “You can’t look at William Grant Still’s life and say, he did all of this by himself in isolation. He did not. If there were not people of every color who were willing to help him all along the way, then he no one would know the name of William Grant Still.
“That’s why I have to tell the story every time. Because William Grant Still was not just black, he was mixed race. He was black, and Cherokee, and Spanish, and Scotch-Irish. He was a lot of things. So when you say things like ‘black history’… you also have to remember that we’re just talking about Americans.”
Eventually, Headlee said, she hopes that there is no need for a specific “Black History Month” in February. “All of us oldsters in this room are counting on you guys to make that happen—to make it so that we don’t need February set aside anymore as a special month. That’s your job, and I’m going to be checking in on you in 30 years!”