03/30/07 - pianos

In today's excerpt - Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, in his treatise on the Harlem Renaissance, writes on the importance of the piano:

"For African-Americans the piano was more than a musical instrument; it became a speedy getaway car to escape the black stereotypes that blocked them from opportunity—artistic, educational and economic. ...

"[T]he piano hit post-Civil War African-Americans with an impact that would destroy and bury the popular image among white Americans of the dumb and lazy Negro, too slow-witted and undisciplined to learn the complex piano. To white America, African-Americans could only handle the most primitive of instruments, such as the drum or banjo. True, few blacks at the time played piano, but that was because during slavery that had little access to pianos. However, after emancipation, many African-American families bought small organs or harmoniums (pianos were too expensive), as a means both to proudly display their independence by owning what had been denied them, and to promote cultural assimilation for their children.

"Raising children who could play the piano not only dispelled the derogatory myths, but also boosted the children's chances for rising up out of their class, even within the black community. And the cost for this opportunity was only fifty cents down and fifty cents a week for the rest of their lives. In his autobiography Up From Slavery, Booker T. Washington recounts a dinner visitation with one such hopeful family in their Alabama cabin: 'When I sat down to the table for a meal with the four members of the family, I noticed that while there were five of us at the table, there was but one fork for the five of us to use. ... In the opposite corner of that same cabin was an organ, for which the people told me they were paying sixty dollars in monthly installments. One fork and a sixty-dollar organ!' Fingers could substitute for forks, but the organ was the hope for the future."


Kareem Abdul-Jabbar


On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance


Simon and Schuster




Copyright 2007 by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar
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