Florence B. Price’s “Night” (Text by Bessie Mayle)

The poetry, music, and other art of the Harlem Renaissance and Chicago Black Renaissance was enormously consequential in doing something that had previously been taboo in the profoundly racist world of the United States: it affirmed that Blackness is inherently beautiful and, equally important, that the White-dominated world’s ubiquitous portrayal of Black as an incursion into White space was unjust and simply wrong, an implicit but potent assertion that Blackness inherently encroached on White dominance. Langston Hughes famously pointed out the perverse and injurious artistic implications of this attitude in his 1926 essay “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain”:

I am ashamed, too, for the colored artist who runs from the painting of Negro faces to the painting of sunsets after the manner of the academicians because he fears the strange unwhiteness of his own features. An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.

Bessie Mayle ‘s (1898–1959) short poem “Night” is less famous than Hughes’s essay — but it makes the same point in elegantly poetic terms rich with symbolic imagery:

Mayle’s poem was published in The Crisis (the official journal of the NAACP) in May, 1930. Perhaps its most obvious feature is its pointed references to the “very, very old” colonialist [“royal”] “gold” — references that symbolize the power of the chattel slave trade that brought millions of Africans from their homeland to the West from their homelands in “the east and on the jungle’s track.” More than this, though, Mayle subverts the White worldview that, in her time as in our own, persisted in Othering Blackness and portraying it as an encroachment on Whiteness’s domain. For here it is Whiteness that encroaches on Blackness; “the finest lines” that this encroachment reveals are implicitly black; and these finest lines’ entwining of “falser tones” reveals those tones’ falseness. Perhaps most important, though, is that Whiteness’s dominance and subjugation of Blackness is only temporary, for, as the previous lines have shown, black “background shades” are the true “ruling shades” and it does not matter if “white lights can boast their rays before” — for ultimately those “brightest days burn out themselves,” while the Blackness of “night rules evermore”: the days of Blacks’ dehumanized subjugation are numbered, and ultimately the inherent strength and beauty of Black will rule.

It’s a short poem but a very beautiful one — and out of it Florence B. Price in 1945 created a commensurately short and beautiful work for women’s chorus and piano. Here is that work in its posthumous premiere performance, given by Prof. Beth Everett and the Southwestern University Chorale in 2018:

Price’s setting — now available from G. Schirmer, which in 2018 acquired the exclusive international rights to Price’s complete catalog — is typical of her style: it is melodically graceful and harmonically rich, and extraordinarily sensitive to the meaning of its text. My favorite features: the decision to treat it as a kind of gentle, lilting lullaby, which casts the poem as words that parents might sing to their children to comfort and reassure them as they fall asleep for the night; and the beautiful air of triumph and joy that Price imparts to the final cadence: “and night rules evermore!” (Price writes an exclamation point here, where Mayle gives only a period.)

And there’s one other point to be made — for just as Mayle’s and Price’s scenario is one whereby Blackness is Othered by Whiteness and ultimately subjugated to it, Price herself and her musical legacy were Othered and by White musical culture, almost to the point of obscurity. But now more of her music than ever before is available in editions and recordings to the musical public, and her works are experiencing the most important sustained revival of public interest of any composer since the mid-twentieth century’s revival of interest in Gustav Mahler.

Let’s keep that revival going. If we do, then perhaps the beauty and richness of the Blackness of “night” (including Price and her music) may indeed rule evermore.

Originally published at https://cooperm55.wixsite.com on March 7, 2021.

A musicologist with a passion for social justice, bringing unheard music to life for performers and listeners, and teaching.

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