Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Classical music not all whites in wigs

"It isn't right for people to grow up thinking that classical music is all white men in wigs." These are the words of Bill Zick, who wants people to know that minorities played an important role in the history of classical music.

Zick's AfriClassical website documents the history of minorities composing and performing classical music. His work combines a love of classical music with a commitment to racial equality.

A retired administrative law judge based in Ann Arbor, Zick has created an internationally recognized education resource on African heritage in classical music. The site contains biographies and audio samples of 52 composers and musicians and spans 500 years of music history. Last year, departments of education in 15 states used the resource.

"People of color have always been a part of classical music and that should be public knowledge," said Zick. In creating and maintaining his blog and website, Zick's main goal is education. "I want people to know the history of blacks in classical music. I want them to know that Henry VIII had a black trumpeter. I want them to know that Beethoven wrote his most challenging sonata for a black violinist," said Zick.

Although racial minorities have a long history in classical music, they are still under-represented among professional symphony orchestras. According to the Sphinx Organization, a Detroit-based advocacy and education organization, less than 4 percent of symphony orchestra members in the U.S. are African-American or Latino.

Zick, a white American, began his lifelong interest in civil rights in his youth. "I grew up with the sense that there was a great societal wrong about the way people of color were treated," he said. "My father was a fan of jazz and knew about racial inequality." His father would attend segregated jazz concerts in the 1930s in Flint. Zick said that after the white bands would play, whites were required to leave and then black performers could take the stage. He said his father would hide in the theater "because after midnight when the black musicians were allowed to play, that's when the music really got good."

He also had an early awareness of racial violence. "I grew up hearing my parents talk about living in Detroit in 1943. During the riots, my mother witnessed a mob of whites chase a black man, catch him and beat him," Zick said. "She is still haunted by what she saw and has always feared that the man was killed." During World War II, racial violence erupted in Detroit among factory workers. It arose from the stresses of a housing shortage, racial tension and inequality among workers who migrated from the south.

Zick hopes his efforts will lead to fair treatment of minorities by raising awareness of their accomplishments. "Regardless of your race, the more you learn about this history, the more basis you have for respecting people of color," he said.

The website gets over 100,000 visits per year, but not all are from educators or supporters of the work. Zick says that some white nationalists have visited the site and left disparaging remarks -- evidence of the persistent prejudice he seeks to mitigate.