Speak Now: How Classical Music Got Me Woke

Ashley Jackson’s research and writing have focused on how 20th-century African-American artists and composers navigated a sharply segregated society through their cultural practice. “It is to their artistic bravery that I look,” she says, “when thinking about how to use music and words as my own voice in today’s wave of social and political activism.”

Written By

Ashley Jackson

On Tuesday, January 10, 2017, millions of Americans tuned in to watch President Obama’s farewell speech. In many ways, it felt like the end of an era. Yet, in spite of his significant political triumphs, he reminded us that there was much to be done:

It falls to each of us to be those anxious, jealous guardians of our democracy; to embrace the joyous task we’ve been given to continually try to improve this great nation of ours. Because for all our outward differences, we all share the same proud title: Citizen.[1]

For the past couple of months, it seems like every day we wake up to a new issue that needs to be addressed and with a new crisis inevitably looming around the corner. Many of my colleagues have expressed that we’re living in some kind of age of anxiety and must ask ourselves: what can I do?

With citizenship comes responsibility, but what that means for each of us varies from person to person.

With citizenship comes responsibility, but what that means for each of us varies from person to person. Over the past few years, beginning with my time at Juilliard, my research and writing have focused on how 20th-century African-American artists and composers navigated a sharply segregated society through their cultural practice. In my dissertation, I examined the relationship between black female composer Margaret Bonds (1913 – 1972) and Langston Hughes, and it is to their artistic bravery that I look when thinking about how to use music and words as my own voice in today’s wave of social and political activism.

Cultural Citizen

In an article titled “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy,” author Renato Rosaldo defines cultural citizenship as “the right to be different and to belong in a participatory democratic sense. It claims that, in a democracy, social justice calls for equity among all citizens, even when such differences as race, religion, class, gender, or sexual orientation potentially could be used to make certain people less equal or inferior to others.”[2]

Looking more closely at this definition, it almost reads like a paradox. How can these differences—which may deny us access to full rights of citizenship—be used to assert and demand those same rights? How can we transcend those differences of race, gender, sexuality, and economic status, while recognizing that such structures exist?

Let’s take it back for just a moment, and visit Harlem, sometime during the 1920s.

Harlem Renaissance

Langston Hughes

Portrait of Langston Hughes (1927)
By Winold Reiss

In 1925, black intellectual Alain Locke published The New Negro. A landmark publication of the Harlem Renaissance, The New Negro reflected the belief among black intellectuals and artists that the creative success of a “Talented Tenth” could improve the social status of blacks in American society. Locke explained:

The great social gain in this is the releasing of our talented group … to the productive fields of creative expression. The especially cultural recognition they win should in turn prove the key to that revaluation of the Negro which must precede or accompany any considerable betterment of race relationships.[3]

Rather than accept a citizenship denied by racism implicit in the American political and social arenas, black intellectuals proposed a “cultural citizenship that promised a new kind of American identity defined by culture instead of politics.”[4] These black artists were viewed as cultural ambassadors for the political advancement of African Americans, and to varying degrees, it was expected that black art itself should challenge contemporary social and political paradigms.

For the first time in American cultural history, black artists, writers, and musicians were gaining widespread recognition for their work, proving that not only could there be race in art, but that such art could be socially relevant, liberating, and beautiful. The writings of W.E.B. Du Bois, the poetry of Langston Hughes, and the music of William Grant Still exposed the fragility of the color line by drawing around it. The accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance artists were groundbreaking, and it was these artists who helped inspire the next generation of black cultural practitioners.

Margaret Bonds

Margaret Bonds

Portrait of Margaret Bonds, 1956
By Carl Van Vechten

Margaret Allison Bonds was born in 1913 in the city of Chicago. She quickly emerged as one of her community’s most promising prodigies as a pianist and composer by the time she entered Northwestern University in 1929. While the university gave her opportunities to study piano and vocal composition with notable professors, it was at Northwestern where she experienced her first prolonged taste of Whites Only discrimination. The school did not provide housing for its African American students, and black female students were prohibited from using its swimming pool facilities. Bonds sought refuge in black art, and it was during this period that she was first introduced to the words of Langston Hughes:

It was in this prejudiced university, this terribly prejudiced place…I came in contact with this wonderful poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers…” And if I had any misgivings – here you are in a setup where the restaurants won’t serve you and you’re going to college, you’re sacrificing, trying to get through school – and I know that poem helped save me.[5]

The career of Bonds spans from the 1930s through the 1960s, a period in which the nation’s cultural and political landscapes were dramatically shaped by the Harlem Renaissance, the Chicago Renaissance, and the modern civil rights movement. From an early age, she was surrounded by the poets, artists, and musicians of the New Negro Movement, and it was from them she inherited the belief that her art could and should be used for social change. As she once shared with Hughes, it is “a great mission to tell Negroes how great they are.”[6]

Bonds and I have a lot in common. We both grew up with the support and encouragement of our communities to develop our musical talents. And yet, the further along in academia I went, the tougher it became to be so often the only one. Yet, for me, simply being the only one wasn’t enough. In the process of my own research on Bonds and the Harlem Renaissance, and looking back at those who came before me, I started to look within and ask myself: what were my responsibilities as an artist?

The Dream Unfinished

The Dream Unfinished logo

In the summer of 2015, I was asked to participate in a benefit concert presented by The Dream Unfinished, an activist orchestra which supports NYC-based civil rights and community organizations through concerts and presentations. It was held on the one-year anniversary of Eric Garner’s death and featured works by Leonard Bernstein, William Grant Still, and a world premiere by Jessie Montgomery. I worried that I was just another token, but the concert season in New York City slows down in the summer months, and the roster of musicians was nothing short of impressive. The evening was filled with excellent performances of mostly pieces I had never heard before, interwoven with moving speeches by civil rights activists and performers. As I looked around the audience, I noticed something else—it was incredibly diverse and I could tell that they were actively engaged. When they left the concert that evening, they all took something home with them. And so did I.

By presenting works by composers who reflect the diversity of our society, we are challenging both performers and audience members to question their absence from the classical music canon.

I immediately wrote to the executive producer and founder, Eun Lee, told her about my research on Margaret Bonds, and by the following season, I was serving on the advisory board. As the organizational demands grew for The Dream Unfinished, I became the deputy director in the fall of 2016.

Through our annual headline event, chamber concerts, and presentations, The Dream Unfinished uses classical music as a platform to engage audiences with issues related to social and racial justice. By partnering with local civil rights organizations, and coming together for an evening of music and reflection centered around one social justice issue, we are giving space to activists to share their work through music, while introducing our classical music audience to the range of social injustices that continue to plague our society.

Our programming celebrates the works of composers from communities that have been historically marginalized in the classical music industry. By presenting works by composers who reflect the diversity of our society, we are challenging both performers and audience members to question their absence from the classical music canon, and to start thinking about the larger socioeconomic forces that led to their exclusion in the first place. It is important that we not only feature such composers of the past, but also that diverse emerging voices are heard. This is accomplished through our commissioning program, which results in a new orchestral work each year written by a composer of color.

This season, titled Raise Your Hand, focuses on the school-to-prison pipeline. More specifically, we are examining how the absence of role models and the one-size-fits all educational design has proven disadvantageous particularly in minority communities. As in our previous seasons, the social justice issue that we focus on informs not only those organizations that we partner with, but also guides our programmatic decisions for the chamber concerts and headline event.

Raise Your Hand will begin with a teaching artist residency that matches members from our diverse roster of musicians with middle and high school students from across the five boroughs. Together they will work on the repertoire for our main event, during which the students will perform alongside professional musicians. The concert will take place on Sunday, June 11 at the Great Hall, Cooper Union, and the program features works primarily by black composers ranging from the 18th century to the present day.

The Harlem Renaissance artists and Margaret Bonds understood that when direct action may fail, art can speak in the beautiful yet poignant way that art has the power to do. Through the creation of or expression through art, at least for me, it seems just a little bit easier to stand on the front lines of today’s activism, working to transcend our differences while recognizing and celebrating them. And that’s how classical music got me woke as a cultural citizen in 2017.

Ashley Jackson

Ashley Jackson

Praised for her rhythmic precision and dynamic range, harpist Dr. Ashley Jackson enjoys a multifaceted career in New York and beyond. She holds degrees from Juilliard (DMA) and Yale University (BA, MM). As an orchestral harpist, she performs with the New York Philharmonic, Metropolis Ensemble, and NOVUS NY.  Her speaking engagements have included “Affinities: Margaret Bonds and Langston Hughes” (Studio Museum of Harlem) and “Representation as Resistance: How an Activist Orchestra Redresses the Push-out of Black Practitioners from Classical Music” (Harvard University).  She is currently an adjunct artist at Vassar College and serves as the deputy director of The Dream Unfinished. Learn more at

1. “Read the Full Transcript of President Obama’s farewell speech,” Los Angeles Times (January 10, 2017), (accessed February 20, 2017).

[2] Renato Rosaldo, “Cultural Citizenship and Educational Democracy,” Cultural Anthropology 9, no. 3 (August 1994): 402, (accessed February 20, 2017).

[3] Alain Locke, “The New Negro,” in The New Negro: An Interpretation, ed. Alain Locke (1925; repr., New York: Arno Press, 1968), 15.

[4] Jeffrey C. Stewart, “The New Negro as Citizen,” in The Cambridge Companion to the Harlem Renaissance, ed. George Hutchinson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 17.

[5] Margaret Bonds, interview by James Hatch, Inner City Cultural Center, Los Angeles, CA, December 28, 1971, Tape in the Division of Recorded Sound, Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, NY, NY.

[6] Margaret Bonds to Langston Hughes, November 4, 1960, in Helen Walker-Hill Papers, Columbia College, Chicago.