I had the privilege of attending two of several events held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the desegregation of Little Rock Central High School. The courageous story of the “Little Rock Nine” as they are known, is one I learned early in my youth as a resident of Little Rock, Arkansas. The high school I attended was opened the same year as the Central crisis, one where the affluent white citizens of Little Rock could send their children in attempt to avoid inevitable progress. By the time I attended in the early 1990’s, all public schools had long been integrated, the legacy of those nine brave students paving the way for my generation and ones to come. This is part two of a two part post. See the first post here.
Many of us know and admire Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. from his many historical and genealogical productions for PBS. He has long been a hero of mine, both from his genealogical contributions, but also his commentary on social and political issues in our country. When I learned he was going to speak at my alma matter, The University of Central Arkansas, I was online to buy tickets the moment they went on sale!
Dr. Gates and noted composer and conductor, Tania Leon, presented Turning History into Art. They spoke at length about the long human tradition of using art to interpret historical and social movements and of the upcoming opera production of The Little Rock Nine. As during the previous evening at the Clinton Presidential Center event, the members of the Little Rock Nine were in attendance and received a standing ovation.
Gates opened the discussion claiming that history is always present, it’s there waiting to be awoken and retold. He quoted the great anthologist and poet, James Weldon Johnson. “The final measure of the greatness of all peoples is the amount and standard of literature and all they have produced. The world does not know that a people is great until that people produces great literature and art.” Gates went on to say that music is the soundtrack of our revolutions, and that if history books were lost or destroyed, we could recreate history from our art.
Gates and Leon discussed why the story of the Little Rock Nine lends itself so well to opera. They argued that composers have been activists in their own way, and that artists are ahead of their times. This particular story is so compelling because we have eight of the protagonists still with us, that can share their voices. “History is about stories, if you can find a way to make it compelling. The Little Rock Nine is an allegory for the human condition. I want to understand what would make a person imbued with hatred so I can speak to that condition. That is what art allows you to do,” said Gates.
Leon discussed how many aren’t inclined to read a long book about history. But many will make time to sit down and participate in the telling of a story. “In opera, in two hours, you might have a really in-depth vision into something you were not so knowledgeable about before,” she said.
Gates commented on our current political climate and the hopes of reconciliation between such disparate ideologies as we are currently seeing in this country. He made a point I have heard him make before, that most Americans are not actually racist. But when people feel their their piece of the pie is shrinking, they look for scapegoats, be it African Americans, Jews, immigrants. “The real problem is lack of economic hope. Leaders that play to those fears for immediate political gain are what we have to change,” he stated.
One of the evening’s highlights was the preview performance of an aria from the opera. The opera was originally the idea of UCA’s former Dean of the College of Fine Arts and Communications, Rollin Potter. A collaboration developed between Gates for his historical knowledge, composer and conductor Tania Leon for her musical talent, and author and playwright Thulani Davis for writing. UCA students have been cast in the roles of the Little Rock Nine. The opera should be completed by the Fall of 2018, when fundraising will begin for its production. A location has not been chosen for the opera’s premiere, but I certainly hope that Little Rock will be given serious consideration.
The photos below are of the Little Rock Nine Memorial on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, and the National Park Service Museum at Central High School. If you are ever in the area, I certainly hope you will stop and visit.
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