Is it ethical for a white woman to discuss a gay black composer?

Is it ethical for a white woman to discuss a gay black composer?


norman lebrecht

September 14, 2019

The distinguished composer Mary Jane Leach, an expert on the music of her late colleague Julius Eastman, was thrown off campus in July when she tried to refer to Eastman’s works by the controversial given names.

Now Leach gives her side of the sorry story:

…. What I hadn’t known was that there had been earlier discussions before the festival about whether it would be ethical for me, a white woman, to speak about a gay black man, and that the moderator of the post-lecture discussion—the leader of an activist group of queer people of color—agreed to take part in what I later learned would be characterized as a “facilitation that unpacks privilege in the conversation around Eastman’s work and Mary Jane’s life in relation thereof.”

What was missing in that premise is the reason why I find it so important to speak and write about Eastman: In a time when identity politics command so much attention—most of it well-deserved and long past its due—it’s also important to stress that he was more than a gay black man. He was also a musician and composer of immense talent. While I am not a gay black man, I am a musician and composer, and Eastman and I were colleagues, having first met in 1981 …

Read on here.



  • Sue Sonata Form says:

    Why in the world do you dignify this rubbish? The new heuristics of the Left: comply or face reputational destruction on the language trip-wires.

    • Judy says:

      Please don’t tar the entire Left with this. It is a product of the extreme Left, and most people have little patience with it.

      • V.Lind says:

        It is a product of the extreme, period. The left has no monopoly on political correctness. And it is a fascistic concept to begin with.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        It is not really “extreme Left”, those people have a different set of beliefs. But rather an form of politics that has a germ of sensible-good-intentions (e.g. its a good thing that Black gay people get to join the discussion, and someone who is Black and gay may something interesting to bring to the discussion). However, it is used by certain people to avoid scrutiny and debate.

    • Des Oliver says:

      Talking about ‘the left’ in these terms makes you sound like ben Shapiro. The fact is, many people ‘on the left’ fully support Mary Jane Leach’s important work on Eastman. The central debate is a little more nuanced than ‘left’ vs ‘right’

    • Edgar says:

      For once, Sue, I tend to agree with you. Yet I would be more precise and speak of the Most Radical Far Left (in fact, so far left that they turn up to the right, acting exactly as the far right in their ideological purity-obsessed ruthlessness).

      The Most Radical Far Left has its own Inquisition or, in modern terms, Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith (such is not the monopoly of the Roman Catholic Church). The Soviets had their Department of Ideology, headed by a Chief Ideologue.

      Identity politics, once pursued to and beyond its extremest forms such as described here, turn into exactly the same instrument of totalitarian oppresssion or “unjust or cruel exercise of authority or power” (Merriam Webster) it denounces.

      Bluntly put: it is the same kind of virtue and vice police as that operating inside Iran. Or the mind-and mass-surveillance regime in Xi-Jinping-China.

  • John Borstlap says:

    These identity politics reverberations begin to eerily look like patients’ discussions in a psychiatric institution. While well-intended, people fly over the cuckoo’s nest with the subject. The works of Mr Eastman should be treated as works and not as banners….

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      Douglas Murray has just written eloquently about this and the herd mentality in his new book, “The Madness of Crowds: Gender, Race and Identity”. I read an extract from it on the weekend and it’s terrifying.

      Be careful of ideologies that are spawned because advocates believe they’re in the peoples’ best interest; these are the last types you’d want telling you anything!!!

      • V.Lind says:

        Be careful of people who judge books by extracts. It’s one step up from people who judge them from blurbs.

      • Opera fan says:

        There are far too many people nowadays who, even with the best of intentions, go around like crusaders with god complexes, trying to control everything people are allowed to do, say, and think. They don’t even seem to notice that they are the authoritarian types either.

  • V.Lind says:

    What a lot of tosh. “Ethical”? Ethics do not enter into it. The question is and only is, is it “politically correct,” which, when you think about it, is about as fascistic a concept as has ever limited our lives.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      At last somebody is calling it by its proper name. I was becoming fearful the whole world was turning into lemmings and gulls.

  • Leporello says:

    Was it ethical for Verdi to compose Aida when he wasn’t an Ethiopian princess? This whole business is absurd.

    • John Borstlap says:

      That Verdi was merely an Italian while writing Aida always stuck with me as something artistically dishonest.


    • Des Oliver says:

      But that’s a legitimate question that falls into the subject of cultural appropriation. The answer is ‘well it all depends on *what* the artist is saying about the culture he or she is depicting, and *how* they’ve gone about depicting it’.

      Whether or not Verdi’s opera constitutes misappropriation is, in this instance, besides the point. There is a huge difference between a white artist helping to platform the work of a black artist and referencing his/her titles in the process, and the ethical question of whether white artists should engage in subject/voice appropriation of Afro-Caribbean derived subject matter.

      • V.Lind says:

        “Cultural appropriation” — that’s another one. Can an American, or for that matter a Vietnamese, woman not wear a tartan skirt?

      • SVM says:

        Des Oliver’s discourse assumes that there is purity in artistic traditions and ideas, in that they belong exclusively and incontestably to precisely one demographic or culture. This is nonsense.

        The reality is that *all* artistic traditions have appropriated material from other cultures (admittedly, to varying extents). To close this avenue of creativity by attempting to enforce a strict yet arbitrary pigeonholing would be to impoverish arts and culture. Many categorisations of traditions and styles are retrospective constructions designed to facilitate analysis, *not* strictly policed boundaries designed to stop artists taking an interest in cultures foreign to his/her own. As serious HIP scholarship has already established, the whole ‘authenticity’ business is far from a straightforward, objective matter.

        Are we supposed to lambast Bach for appropriatating dance styles associated with countries he never visited? Are we supposed to lambast Haydn for appropriating ‘gypsy’ tropes, despite his not being a gypsy? Are we supposed to lambast Rachmaninoff for appropriating monastic chants, despite his not being a priest? Are we supposed to lambast the numerous composers who have appropriated ‘folk’ songs, jazz idioms, and non-Western musical cultures, often reimagining them in a completely new context? Are we supposed to lambast the numerous improvisers (many of whom are/were also great composers) who make an art of appropriation /ex tempore/?

        We already have a mechanism to protect living and recently deceased artists both economically and ethically from being misappropriated — it is called copyright and moral rights. There is no need for censorship from the self-righteous bigots claiming to possess a mandate to speak for an entire demographic or culture.

        • Des Oliver says:

          Your response is laced with assumptions, so you’ll forgive me for addressing them one at a time:

          “Des Oliver’s discourse assumes that there is purity in artistic traditions and ideas, in that they belong exclusively and incontestably to precisely one demographic or culture”

          Strawman argument: I made no such claim—you did. Objections to the appropriation of art, music or literary traditions are not necessarily based on presumptions of artistic “purity” or authenticity. Artistic traditions tend to serve as a representation and expression of a culture, and objections to misappropriation are often centered around what is being *said* about the culture that is being portrayed. Alternatively, these objections are based on the harm caused by the act of appropriation itself—be it, the financial harm caused by the outright theft of cultural artefacts such as the infamous case of the Parthenon Marbles (object appropriation) or the theatrical make-up used by non-black, minstrel performers to perpetuate negative stereotypes of Afro-Caribbeans (subject, or voice appropriation).

          2). “The reality is that *all* artistic traditions have appropriated material from other cultures (admittedly, to varying extents)”

          A). Engaging in acts of unethical misappropriation cannot be excused by the fact that similar acts have occurred in the past, any more than a society’s long history of criminal activity can be used to justify robbing someone’s house.
          B). Not all artistic traditions, whose origins derive from elsewhere have come about through appropriation. A good example of this is ancient Imperial Court Japanese music from the Nara period; Japanese forms of Togaku and Komagaku have their origins in China and Korea respectively and came about through the cross-pollination of cultures via the silk road, the same could be said for the adoption and subsequent adaptation of baroque and renaissance dance forms across Western Europe (Countries within Western Europe have a shared cultural history too). Ironically, Japanese imperial court musicians are designated as “living cultural artifacts” by the Japanese Government, and the forms (mentioned above) are considered to be an important part of the imperial court tradition.
          C) Not all acts of appropriation are unethical, but may still be acts of appropriation. The *ethics* are contingent upon the circumstances.

          3). “To close this avenue of creativity by attempting to enforce a strict yet arbitrary pigeonholing would be to impoverish arts and culture”

          And who is ‘closing off avenues of expression’ exactly? Acknowledging the relationship between a culture and its tradition is not “pigeonholing”, but simply identifying the origin and significance of that art form in relation to the culture in question.

          4). “Many categorisations of traditions and styles are retrospective constructions designed to facilitate analysis”

          The categorisation [of styles] perhaps, but not necessarily the traditions or styles themselves—Slavic, Bulkan folk traditions, are distinct from other forms of folk music, such as Gaelic folk, and would have been recognised as such by the people belonging to those traditions.

          5). “not* strictly policed boundaries designed to stop artists taking an interest in cultures foreign to his/her own”

          There is nothing wrong with artists taking an interest in a culture foreign to their own, I’ve worked with many such artists, and have myself explored music that is outside of my own cultural heritage. However, I am well aware that many artists use similarly, lazy and poorly crafted arguments to defend wholly unethical practices.

          Appropriation typically refers to the taking of something *without permission*. [Artistic] cultural appropriation (which I’ve described as misappropriation) manifests in several different ways, some of these may include: the outright theft or plagiarism of a piece of artwork, or by giving a false account of a culture through the misrepresentation (or accidental misreading) of an art form originating from said culture. In the case of the latter, such misrepresentations *may* arise due to their inauthenticity, but this might not be the reason for the objection. White Australian artists may well be able to produce paintings that pass for authentic aboriginal artwork by the bucketload, but this would have a negatively detrimental financial impact on aboriginal artists.

          6). “We already have a mechanism to protect living and recently deceased artists both economically and ethically from being misappropriated— it is called copyright and moral rights”

          Setting aside the long history of outright theft, plagiarism, and misappropriation of cultural artifacts, and perpetuation of harmful stereotypes through artworks not captured by copyright law, some of the most recent high profile court cases in popular music—see Darkhorse plagiarism case—have shown how ineffective such laws are in separating genuinely original work from stylistic and linguistic conventions. There have been examples of court cases citing “cultural expression” as property.

          7). “There is no need for censorship from the self-righteous bigots claiming to possess a mandate to speak for an entire demographic or culture”

          I’m not sure who or what you are referring to here, but I should point out that censorship is not the same as denying someone a platform. “Censorship is the suppression of speech, public communication, or other information […] conducted by a government, private institutions, and corporations”. In the Leach-Eastman case, ‘censorship’ would have been to deny Leach the right to create her *own* platform, denying her the right to put on her *own* events, preventing her from ever discussing the music of Julius Eastman. Whilst I believe the decision and subsequent treatment of Leach by OBEY were unequivocally disgraceful, counterproductive, and flat out wrong, this was not an example of censorship.


  • Chilynne says:

    I don’t suppose that the people who were so distressed by the lecture considered skipping the concert to prevent further trauma from the music. No, of course not. And the spineless administrators gave in to the snowflakes and deprived everyone, composer included, of hearing her work performed. Pathetic!

  • Gary says:

    People are their own worst enemy.

  • sam says:

    ” he was more than a gay black man. He was also a musician and composer of immense talent.”

    Just a tad condescending?

    “he’s not just black, he composes, just like white people”

    Now I know understand why the organizers were uneasy about her scholarship.

    • Gazza says:

      I guess in a game of woke top trumps, your condescension of a woman composer and academic might be a win.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It’s the iron clad guarantee for the Trump re-election come 2020. Take that to the bank.

        That man only exists insofar as he’s chemotherapy for PC; the cancer on the body politik.

    • Ian Pace says:

      “he’s not just black, he composes, just like white people”

      Like most ‘white people’ compose to a high level. Far from it.

    • Bone says:

      I’m not sure you understand much of anything, really.

    • Judy says:

      This is not how I read the comment. I read it as: he isn’t a two-dimensional character, to be summed up merely by his physical characteristics; he is a person of many parts.

    • Bruce says:

      I believe she was making her point against the festival’s argument that his being gay & black was more important than his music (and that her whiteness was more important than her knowledge of his music).

      Did you read the whole article? It’s interesting, and not super long.

    • SVM says:

      It should be clarified that, in sam’s comment, *only* the 1st of the two statements in quotation-marks is Leach’s.

      The 2nd statement in quotation marks is sam’s own inference (which Pace deconstructs very effectively in his reply), *not* Leach’s. Without explicit clarification in the comment itself, this is potentially libellous.

  • Harry Collier says:

    Is it ethical for black men to discuss white composers?

    • Terence says:

      Good point Harry.

      We can be pretty sure that if a Black, gay man wanted to discuss the work of a straight White woman there would be none of this nonsense.

      • Sue Sonata Form says:

        It reminds me of “The Goodbye Girl” when the Richard Dreyfus character is to perform Richard 3 and the director wants him gay, sans the hump!! A hilarious, early take on PC gone feral.

        They are taking us all over a cliff.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      If two white people are standing for president should a black person be allowed to vote?

  • Dave T says:

    Stalinism lives!
    At least maybe we could get another Shostakovitch as part of the deal, though I still don’t think that it would be worth it.

  • Pianofortissimo says:


  • Mustafa Kandan says:

    I wonder whether if a compulsory voting system, like in Australia, would lead to more consistency between the political correctness that dominates much of the USA and its elected presidents.

    • Mr. Knowitall says:

      Because many U.S. minorities face roadblocks in their attempts to vote, compulsory voting would result in the election of more liberal politicians.

    • anon says:

      Whilst I appreciate the arguments for “compulsory voting”, I think it the right to abstain should be sacrosanct. Not voting *is* making a statement of sorts, in that it undermines the legitimacy of the election. For a member of the electorate who feels that the system is a sham and that none of the candidates is suitable, refusing to vote could be a rational and reasonable choice. Indeed, it might even be a plausible choice where the only decent candidates stand no chance (as is the case in almost all recent USA presidential elections), especially when to vote for such candidates results in vituperation for “enabling”/”preventing”/”spoiling” the chances of a ‘mainstream’ candidate (just look at the derogatory rhetoric used to describe people who supported Ralph Nader or Dr Jill Stein).

  • Mr. Knowitall says:

    This must have been quite a vocal minority. Halifax is, I believe, less than 1 percent black.

  • Limiting expression is the sickness of our era. As bad as the Right can be, when totalitarianism comes to the West, it will come from the Left.

    • Sue Sonata Form says:

      You don’t need to equivocate about the Right being as bad as the Left. Reminds me of my old boss in teaching; couldn’t discipline a few for appalling habits so roundly abused everybody.

      Totalitarianism always came from the Left. Remember National SOCIALISM. And it was academics and the bien pensant who so admired the little Colonel. Airbush, airbrush.

      The only thing missing today is the uniforms, but that will soon follow.

      • V.Lind says:

        Totalitarianism has nothing to do with right or left. It is, in and of itself.

        Nazism is not socialist, and communist countries are not leftist. They may spout some of the more attractive-sounding platitudes of those philosophies, but in practice all of them were and where they still exist still are totalitarian in how they operate. No dissent, no criticism, no tolerance for the views of others.

        Groups that generally think of themselves as leftish or rightish have each got involved in bad causes. But in most politics, in the end it comes down to power. Mature political actors accept the verdict of the voter, or even the criticism of their opposition and dissenters, and move accordingly. Weak and uncertain ones use force and the tools of oppression to silence criticism.

      • Thanks, Sue. Well said.

    • Saxon Broken says:

      Pro-Brexit supporters are on-the-right rather than the left; they have shut down Parliament. Hungary and Poland also have governments “on the right” which many people believe threaten democracy.

  • Marc says:

    The OBEY Convention seems to be ‘new music with a heavy programmatic emphasis on identities‘. If you skipped reading their ‘Public Apology’ (linked to by Leach), you might want to reconsider: it is a priceless exemplar of tortured English and doublespeak in the service of politics.

  • Dr. Shirley Rombough says:

    Regarding the article by Mary Jane Eastman: I don’t understand why she was demonized. She, a respected composer and musician, gave a serious accounting of her positions. As a member of a vulnerable population herself, why was she so attacked? And why did the author of the article about her use her first name? A disrespectful usage in itself.

  • Dr. Shirley Rombough says:

    Ms. Eastman was not commenting as a member of an identity group but as a musician and composer commenting on another artist/composer’s work. Why is that not legitimate?

  • Bruce says:

    To try to be fair to the evil, liberal, concert-cancelling PC festival nazis [eyeroll]: they were clearly swimming way out of their depth.

    If they’d been thinking at the beginning in the terms they were thinking in by the end, they would never have invited Ms. Leach to speak in the first place.

    — Actually, you know what? I did a little research and found that this festival has a long and proud history of bending over backwards in response to any kind of criticism, on what appears to be the premise that all criticism is by its very nature justified and should always be taken seriously and acted upon. (I’m probably oversimplifying.)

    According to this (probably oversimplified) view, they appear to think that the way they handled this debacle was honest, heartfelt, and the best they could do under the circumstances. A “normal” apology (sorry, we did our best not to offend, we are human, we’ll try to do better next time) does not seem to be in their DNA.

    They clearly decided at some point that the usual response is inadequate. Instead, their policy appears to be: adopt completely the point of view of the criticizers, and apologize for whatever they are accused of doing.

    With this viewpoint in mind, it’s difficult to see how they could ever successfully present a lecture on, or concert of, the music of Julius Eastman, or anything else for that matter. The very nature of such a thing, — an event, announced in advance, happening in a certain place at a certain time, — and the festival’s policy of responding to criticism, leaves it open to being torpedoed by anyone, for any reason, at any point before, during, or after the event.

    My sympathy goes to Mary Jane Leach for getting mixed up with this bunch of people in the first place.

  • Paul Brownsey says:

    Oh dear. How some people do make a fetish of a word.