Race and “Air and Simple Gifts” at the Presidential Inauguration

I’m teaching a 400-level seminar called “Music in Asian America” this semester. Last Tuesday, instead of a class meeting, I created an “inauguration assignment.” The objective of the assignment is to ask the students to examine the musical representations at the inauguration ceremony in light of the current media discourse about Obama’s politics with regards to race and ethnicity. The assignment first asks the students to read SF Gate’s “Asian Pop” columnist Jeff Yang’s controversial article: “Could Obama be the first Asian American president?” and explore a slew of responses to Yang’s article. Then it asks them to post their analysis to the class blog.

The class did a marvelous job discussing the representational politics of multicuturalism exuded by the classical music performance at the ceremony. Immediately, they noticed the seemingly contrived selection of four minority musicians: Israeli-American violinist Itzhak Perlman, Chinese-American cellist Yo-Yo Ma, African American clarinetist Anthony McGill, and a U.S.-based Venezuelan national pianist named Gabriela Montero.

Introducing a Puritanesque theme, McGill plays the familiar “Simple Gifts”, 19th century Shaker hymn most notably known for American composer Aaron Copland’s citation in Appalachian Spring. Combined with the “Air”, a popular song form of the 16th and 17th century England, this arrangement by pop classical music composer John Williams presents a continuity of the American ‘folk’ culture from its European/English roots. Most explicit part of the musical message perhaps is couched in the role of “Simple Gifts” in the arrangement. In this section of the performance, the musicians, working in intimacy and collaborating with a performed (lip-synched!) vigor, displayed Obama’s politics of social unity in a literalist and sensational way. Also, the reference to Appalachian Spring is no coincidence. Similar to the effect in Copland’s ballet, the “Gifts” citation symbolizes freedom as promised by living a hardworking and simplistic life. Associated with the American ideology of meritocracy or the American Dream, the themes of freedom and hard work, also are evoked by Obama during his inauguration speech.

In his controversial article, Jeff Yang links Obama’s belief in educational achievement and work ethic to what he calls “Asian values,” the impetus to pull up by the bootstraps as perceived to be adopted by Asian immigrants. One student pointed out in class that Yang’s assumption risks reinforcing the model minority myth. Yang’s thesis is better argued in his NPR interview. In it, Yang claims “race more as a metaphor”, as a transmigratable concept away from biological and cultural essentialism, away from the binary and toward the multiplistic approach. I think he’s onto something here. Obama’s multiracial ethnicity and transcultural/transnational upbringing could embody a more fluid way of conceptualizing race and ethnicity. Yang finds these qualities in the present Asian American communities.

Present-day identity politics is not one-dimensional as once it had been in the 1960s and 1970s. Identity politics could work in such a way to allow room for identification “as” and “with.” Many individuals of social groups identify with Obama. And Obama’s unity politics seems to allow him to breach various social divides. Yang’s article should’ve been more accurately titled as “Could Obama identify with Asian America?”

I asked my students, “are there any dangers in conceiving of race as a metaphor? Is race really transmigratable?” Histories of oppression associated with race are still around us. We decided that only parts of race can be deconstructed through cultural criticism, although we hope that someday that race as an social institution and ideology will transmigrate completely and sublimate into thin air.

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This entry was originally posted on January 27, 2009 on Yellowbuzz.

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