Black music, white teacher: an apology owed

Mance Lipscomb, via Morehead State Public Radio

We  favor blues musicians without testosterone, without teeth, without sight, without color.

Black women, androgynous white men, and old Black men are safer. Old, scratchy vinyl recordings are safer. But we shy away from the Black man in his prime.

The blues are easy to play poorly yet sound good to white ears. The Stones made a living on this.


I was playing Robert Johnson as the seniors strolled into class on Friday. I’ve gotten in the habit of playing music as the day starts, and Robert Johnson was the morning headliner.

Robert Johnson, photo via NYT

The third marking period started a few days ago. The class just had their first quiz. Most failed, not unexpected given it was the first quiz for seniors that did not count. Senioritis has kicked in.

So I sang an off-the-cuff blues piece about senioritis backed by a harmonica riff lifted off YouTube.

And now I realize this was a mistake.

So tomorrow I will start class with an apology. Not for playing Robert Johnson, a fierce blues man who died far too young. Not for singing, though that may warrant a separate kind of apology.

I will apologize for my lack of respect. Using that art form at that moment to entertain students was wrong. It felt off at the moment, but I wasn’t sure why. I thank Justin of objective opinions for his kind reminder.

(Yes, I will still sing and play the blues by myself for myself–but I cannot share what I do not own.)

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