June 20, 2008

Black Music Serves to Soothe the Soul

By Generic

If I had two loaves of bread, I would sell one of them and buy white hyacinths for my soul, wrote author Elbert Hubbard (1856-1915), perhaps reflecting the sentiment of 13th century Persian poet Muslihuddin Sadi, who urged his readers to "sell one, and with the dole buy hyacinths to feed the soul." The point -- the arts are as important to survival as basic daily bread.

There is no better time to remember the sustaining power of the arts than in June, which was designated Black Music Month by President Jimmy Carter in 1979. Then he invited Candy Staton, Joe Williams, Chuck Berry, Patti LaBelle and Andrae Crouch to perform on the White House lawn.

This year's proclamation by President Bush mentions Scott Joplin, Marian Anderson, Eubie Blake, Mahalia Jackson, Duke Ellington, Muddy Waters and Ruth Brown. The smooth sounds of jazz, the high-octane trills of rhythm and blues, the thumping beat of go-go, the plaintive wail of Negro spirituals and the rousing inspiration of movement songs are all part of the patchwork quilt called Black Music.

The quilt is diminished, just a bit, by the June 2 death of Bo Diddley, the Mississippi native who moved from the blues to rock 'n' roll to the thumping beat of his signature square guitar. Despite his many hit records, Diddley often said that racism in the music industry had deprived him of royalty income during the most successful period of his career.

The history of inequality makes Black Music Month worth celebrating. It reminds us of the sacrifices that many have undertaken to share their muse, traveling from town to town on rickety buses, which they often slept in when hotel accommodations were unavailable. Despite the racial climate, they somehow still performed, providing white hyacinths for a nation.

As Congress grapples with budget matters, the weighty issues of war and gas prices should not undercut the need to maintain robust funding for the National Endowment for the Arts. For example, the Center for Black Music Research at Columbia College in Chicago has been a recipient of NEA funds. The 2008 appropriation of $145 million for the NEA was the first healthy increase in at least five years.

Arts funding is often one of the first things to be cut when money is tight. While reading, writing and arithmetic must be the priority in education, there is much to be said for teaching, and exposing students to, the arts. Black Music Month reminds us of the centrality of the arts to our lives and of how dismal our world might be were we to live without soul-feeding hyacinths.

Julianne Malveaux is president of Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, N.C. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>