The views expressed below are the opinions and inferences of the author alone.
I know that this is a difficult, controversial topic. I bring it up because I have some personal experience in being erased, and I can speak for myself that my experience enables me to see it happening to others.
First of all, I will be the first to say that erasure often occurs without clear premeditation. That is, it seems to arise more from acts of omission than through overt acts. Let me give you an example. I am a brown woman with a PhD from Harvard University and once had the fancy, academic title of Associate Professor. I fought very hard to get those things, and without those epithets I am not taken seriously. However, I have had my credentials left out of or erased from descriptions of me and have otherwise had my qualifications minimized. These credentials mean everything to me as a brown woman who had to retire because she became too ill fighting to continue her job as an Associate Professor. Without my PhD, I am just a quasi-Hispanic person with a funny middle name (more on that, perhaps, in another post). If you were to glance at a concert program and read through its roster of names, would you assign more weight to the ones with “Dr” preceding them than to the ones that had no professional titles or suffices attached? When this happens, I do not feel valued or appreciated but, worse, I disappear.
I have already told you directly about the deep condescension surrounding Dett’s year of study at Harvard. I have obliquely told you that when Dett attended Eastman, he had two more legitimate claims to “Doctor” than the Director. How is it that these fancy degrees and titles just magically appear for some people, even when they were never earned, yet those who earn them have them omitted or ignored? Dett is not “Doctor Dett” in the same Eastman yearbook with the picture of “Dr Howard Hanson”. Even if Dett had asked for that, I have noticed that when someone asks to be demoted from high status to a “regular” person in order to make others feel comfortable, the demotion of brown people occurs instantaneously but the deference persists for white people. In plain terms, strip the titles away and people still bow down. Strip my title away, and I am no longer perceived in the room. No, really. I have been pushed aside (laterally displaced in real space) and sat on (occupying a chair upon which I was already seated) numerous times. Invisibility is my not-so-superpower. There’s a whole book called “Strangers‘‘ of the Academy written on the subject, by the way.
I had a real conversation with the BBC Philharmonic about a manuscript at the Sibley Library. In short, the Phil assumed it had discovered it and was giving it a world premiere. I told them that the manuscript was listed publicly online in Sibley’s catalog and that we could not presume it had not been transcribed and performed somewhere. I did not mention this at the time, but Dett might have even performed it himself!! Without intending to do so, the Phil was erasing all that history. To their very great credit, they courageously dialed back their claims and delivered a wonderful Philharmonic premiere. Let this be a lesson in how to identify and handle an erasure in progress. Again, I want to be clear that there was no clear premeditation involved. The Phil loved what they saw and found a way to celebrate Dett’s music without erasing anything.
The HBCUs at which Dett taught, studied (he visited countless institutions to enrich his talents), or furnished future faculty have cultivated lengthy performance histories of music by composers of all colors and creeds, but these histories are largely unknown outside them. When mainstream, shall we say, organizations proclaim to make discoveries or give premieres or invent innovative programming they are in fact erasing all those histories without even knowing it (look up Emma Azalia Smith Hackley). On the one hand, we should not attribute malice except where it is warranted, but on the other hand, we still need to make parallel histories known across historically segregated lines. This is not easy, but we will only perpetuate an awful situation and achieve nothing but more enmity and misunderstanding.
This is why I started this blog. I hope to learn through trial and error how to combat historical erasure with Dett as a specific case example. I have as much to learn as anyone else. I hope you will join me on this journey and, with any luck, embark on one yourself.