It’s February, Black History Month. If you don’t know a people’s past, you probably won’t understand the people.
A couple of weeks ago, a girlfriend and I attended a concert at the Cultural Center in Chicago that featured pianist Dmitri Shteinberg. Mr. Shteinberg played pieces by Ravel, Schumann and Debussy. The concert hall was packed, and by the time the concert was about to start, only a few seats were available.
A Caucasian man sat two seats down from me on the aisle, leaving one empty seat between us. I sat with my coat around my shoulders with one of its sleeves hanging down onto the empty seat. A volunteer came over to verify that the seat next to me was free. She then led a Caucasian man to it. I glanced over at this man, who seemed hesitant to take the seat. My face probably showed my another-white-person-that-doesn’t-want-to-sit-next-to-a-black-person attitude in response to his hesitation. Anyway, I pulled the sleeve of my coat onto my lap and moved closer to my friend. The man sat down. The concert began.
Near the end of the concert when Mr. Shteinberg played the Debussy pieces, I suddenly became aware that my head and the head of the man next to me were almost touching as we strained to see the hands of the pianist through a gap between the heads of the people in front of us. I dared not move my head for fear of appearing to be the one that was uncomfortable about our heads being so close.
The concert ended and as we applauded, the man and I happened to look at each other. We gave each other cautious smiles. When the applause ended and we were putting on our coats, the man, my girlfriend and I spoke enthusiastically about the facial expression of the pianist, his talent and the music.
The man spoke with a thick accent. Whatever barriers might have existed between us in the beginning had certainly been broken down by the music.
“There’s music in the air. … It flits about and floats about to find a place to go.” — Oscar Hammerstein
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.” — Ralph Ellison (1914-1994), African-American writer.