Friday, March 23, 2012


The first step in learning a new choral piece is to read the text through, several times.  The Oakland Symphony Chorus just began preparing Ralph Vaughn Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem, a cantata written in 1936, between "the war to end all wars" and the "world war."  (For those of you in the S.F. Bay Area, we'll perform it on May 20 at the Scottish Rite temple in Oakland, with the Oakland Youth Orchestra.)

In the context of the recent incident in Florida where a "neighborhood watch captain" followed and shot a young black man returning from a convenience store, the text of the third movement of our new piece struck me. 

Before I get to that, I want to say that as a community policing volunteer in Oakland, I am disgusted by George Zimmerman.  Any real Neighborhood Watch volunteer would know his neighbors well enough to be aware of their visiting relatives, and would understand who "has a right" to be walking around in the neighborhood.  That's what Neighborhood Watch is about.  George Zimmerman appears to have had no idea that "his" gated neighborhood could legitimately have a young black man walking around in it - which means he didn't know the neighborhood very well, did he?

But I digress.  A lot of Dona Nobis Pacem is set to poetry by Walt Whitman.  I had forgotten how great Whitman's poetry is. The third movement uses this eloquent text:


Word over all, beautiful as the sky,
Beautiful that war and all its deeds of carnage must in time be utterly lost,
That the hands of the sisters Death and Night incessantly, softly, wash again and ever again this soiled world;
For my enemy is dead, a man divine as myself is dead,
I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin -- I draw near,
Bend down and touch lightly with my lips the white face in the coffin.
Does George Zimmerman really feel that Trayvon Williams is not "a man divine as myself," merely because the face in the coffin is brown and not white??  If he does, what a terrible judgment on us all that we allowed him to learn to think that way.


  1. Would love for Whitman's "When Lilacs Last ... " to be set to music. Have you ever heard Stravinsky's setting of "Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night?"

  2. No, I don't think I have. This is the first setting of any Whitman that I've run into.

  3. Hedera: I hesitate to pass judgment on any aspect of the Florida incident. Every day, in every major city in America, minority youths are shooting each other, often fatally. This continuous wave of violence goes unremarked--it's just taken for granted. Our prisons are filled to brimming with African American youths convicted of the whole range of petty and serious violations. This is characterized as a racist dilemma, which it no doubt is. But racist from what point of view? Meanwhile residents in ghettos call for an end to the violence in their midst.

    The minority youth culture glorifies violence and crime and the "gangsta" world which thrives in the Black and Latino ghettos across the country. Everyone is familiar with the trappings of this life-style, young toughs loitering on streets wearing hoods, conducting gang wars, trading drugs and other contraband on a thriving black market, brandishing hand-guns with apparent impunity. Is it any wonder that the society at large accepts these signs of criminality and threat as evil manifestations?

    Everyone pays lip service to the politically correct notion of racial equality and not convicting people or even of suspecting them, based solely on the color of their skin. But a strapping black teenager wearing a hood after dark, with a chip on his shoulder, has every right to expect to be treated with caution, even with hostility, given the context of our cultural milieu.

    I have no doubt Zimmerman over-reacted--though we don't know even a part of the real story at this point, which is being withheld in the interests of fairness--but over-reacting is all about the context of fear and intimidation and reasonable caution which we're all too familiar with.

    Would you, a married woman in late middle-age, be caught dead walking in an Oakland ghetto after dark? Of course not. If you saw a lone African American in a hoodie walking towards you at night, would you be likely to relax, or avoid a confrontation altogether by crossing the street, or at the very least, prepare to remove your pepper spray or hand-siren from your purse? Are you, by reacting in this way, acting out a "racist" narrative? Without a doubt.

    Participants in a drama like that which occurred in Florida, are co-respondents in a context of suspicion and reasonable caution. If Zimmerman believed his life was in imminent danger--i.e., if he suspected this ghetto-type was packing--he might very well have viewed his options as limited.

    In the meantime, it does no one any good to speculate about the "racist" implications. That's just exploitation and opportunistic political mongering. I'll have none of it.