Is Our DNA Our Identity?

Pocahontas, 1992.40

Engraving of Pocahontas (1595-1617).

The question of whether one’s innate identity is determined by DNA has come up recently in the feud between Senator Elizabeth Warren and President Trump about whether or not Warren has Native American ancestry. Trump, as you may know, has mockingly referred to Warren as “Pocahontas.” Warren had her DNA tested and published the results, which show that she had a Native American ancestor between six and ten generations ago.

Does this make Warren an Indian?

Chuck-Hoskin-Jr

According to Chuck Hoskin (above), the Secretary of State of the Cherokee Nation (like other Native tribes, a sovereign nation within U.S. territory), no.

“A DNA test is useless to determine tribal citizenship. Current DNA tests do not even distinguish whether a person’s ancestors were indigenous to North or South America,” Cherokee Nation Secretary of State Chuck Hoskin Jr. said. “Sovereign tribal nations set their own legal requirements for citizenship, and while DNA tests can be used to determine lineage, such as paternity to an individual, it is not evidence for tribal affiliation. Using a DNA test to lay claim to any connection to the Cherokee Nation or any tribal nation, even vaguely, is inappropriate and wrong. It makes a mockery out of DNA tests and its legitimate uses while also dishonoring legitimate tribal governments and their citizens, whose ancestors are well documented and whose heritage is proven. Senator Warren is undermining tribal interests with her continued claims of tribal heritage.”

What does this argument have to do with our understanding of music?

Jeannette_Thurber_as_a_young_woman

When Antonín Dvořák came to America in 1892, he did so on the invitation of the wealthy arts patroness Jeannette Thurber (above) — who, by the way, was born not far from here, in Delhi, NY — to lead the new National Conservatory of Music in New York City. It was hoped that he would train American composers to develop a national style of music. Soon after he arrived, Dvořák told the New York Herald in an interview:

In the Negro melodies of America I discover all that is needed for a great and noble school of music. They are pathétic, tender, passionate, melancholy, solemn, religious, bold, merry, gay or what you will. It is music that suits itself to any mood or purpose. There is nothing in the whole range of composition that cannot be supplied with themes from this source. The American musician understands these tunes and they move sentiment in him.

In an unprecedented move, Dvořák welcomed black and female composition students into his classes. Among his students were violinist and composer Will Marion Cook, who had studied with Brahms’s great friend Joseph Joachim in Berlin, and singer and composer Harry T. Burleigh.

“A Negro Sermon,” an art song by Cook.

“Lovely Dark and Lonely One,” an art song by Burleigh.

Harry T. Burleigh’s song “The Young Warrior,” a setting of a poem by James Weldon Johnson, was translated into Italian and sung by the Italian army as they marched into battle During World War I.

Mother, shed no mournful tears,
But gird me on my sword;
And give no utterance to thy fears,
But bless me with thy word.

The lines are drawn! The fight is on!
A cause is to be won!
Mother, look not so white and wan;
Give Godspeed to thy son.

Now let thine eyes my way pursue
Where’er my footsteps fare;
And when they lead beyond thy view,
Send after me a prayer.

But pray not to defend from harm,
Nor danger to dispel;
Pray, rather, that with steadfast arm
I fight the battle well.

Pray, mother of mine, that I always keep
My heart and purpose strong,
My sword unsullied and ready to leap
Unsheathed against the wrong.

While Dvořák’s Symphony no. 9 in in E minor, “From the New World,” was not actually based on spirituals, the famous second movement largo sounded like a spiritual, and later “became” a sort of spiritual in the popular imagination.

Dvořák’s great success in America inspired other composers to take advantage of “Negro melodies.” In the early years of the twentieth century, white American and European composers came out with pieces with such titles as “Negro Folk Symphony” (William Dawson), “Rapsodie nègre” (French composer Francis Poulenc), and “Negro Suite” (Danish composer Thorvald Otterstrom).

The question one might ask about these composers and their work is: were they writing these pieces in a spirit of fellowship? or one of exploitation?

One of the strangest and most egregious examples of a white composer writing in the black style is John Powell’s “Rhapsodie Nègre.”

John Powell was a Virginia-born, Vienna-trained pianist and composer who promoted American folk music. He was also a white supremacist who helped to draft Viriginia’s “Racial Integrity Act,” also known as the “one-drop rule” — which legally classified anyone with any amount of African ancestry as black, and hence subject to Jim Crow.

John_Powell_at_piano_in_1916

As a music historian with a particular interest in these things, it’s hard not to view Senator Warren’s insistence on an Indian identity, based on her DNA test results, as (unintentionally) evocative of the efforts and beliefs of figures like John Powell.

What is identity? How is it expressed in music? How should it be expressed?

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