The arts have always played a significant role in the history and culture of African descendants. While many people today often limit the scope of Art within the African Diaspora to hip hop, R & B, contemporary dance, and other emerging contemporary musical art forms. African descendants have contributed to and have played important roles in all forms of art and have made important and significant impressions on them. One of the greatest composers of the early classical period was Joseph Boulogne, who was also known as Chevalier Saint-Georges, and yet sadly today he is almost entirely forgotten. He was one of the earliest musicians of the European classical tradition to have African ancestry. This son of a slave overcame adversities of class, race, and prejudice to become a major musical star all over Europe and inspired both Mozart and Haydn.
The composer, conductor and violin virtuoso Boulogne was born to a Senegalese slave and a French colonialist, in the French-Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. Joseph Boulogne’s father moved him and his mother to France at the age of eight. This indeed was interesting and a bit surprising considering that a person of color was not view as a human being during the 18th century. In his pristine environment white society wasted no time in making the young Saint-Georges feel unwelcome. After all he was black and trying to fit in an aristocratic society that view people of color as either slaves or laborers. This was very evident in many instances, for example; although he was known for his athletic talents as a swimmer and swordsman. Those in white society were appalled and offended at the idea of this great fencer and would challenge him constantly, to put the “mulato” (as the challenger Picarr would refer to him in derogatory fashion), in his place. Boulogne was also deemed unfit to marry because of the color of his skin.
Boulogne was a virtuoso violinist, director of Paris’s finest orchestra and prolific composer. He was also among the earliest French composers of string quartets, symphonies concertantes and quartets concertantes. And yet he was humiliated when he was proposed as music director of the Opera in 1776. Many protested, even though he was talented and the King’s favorite to earn the position. A petition was made and sent to the queen declaring that “their honor and their delicate conscience could never allow them to submit to the orders of a mulatto.” The position was relatively left vacant (as no one possessed the merits to fulfill the requirements to be the director), rather than allow Boulogne to occupy the position.
Joseph Boulogne was unduly assigned a nickname in the modern-day circles of the classical musical universe, “Le Mozart Noir” which is more of a derision that a tribute. One might ponder why a musical genius would be given “The Black Mozart” as a nickname, why not the just called him the great Boulogne. The nickname is used to imply that Mozart’s music is superior to Boulogne. And to evoke the sense that Mozart’s work came before that of Boulogne and the latter was influenced by it, when indeed it was the other way around. The arts have invariably played a significant role in the history and culture of all societies and symbolism matters. Therefore, the nickname was no mistake nor was it a sincere attempt at honoring him. After all there is a reason that one might have never heard about him when studying classical music.
This is because he was the first man of African descendant to lead France’s most important orchestras and that matters in many ways. The nickname is a reminder that no matter how talented a person of color may be, there is always a systematic attempt to make sure they are erased. Or at the very least regarded to be inferior to a talented white artist. The nickname gave Boulogne the status of a second-class citizen.
Today our society is still submerged in a wave of disdain for people of color who are exceptionally talented and accomplished. They are only cheered when they do not overstep their “boundaries.” As long as they merely entertain and do not question the ills of a sick nation and try to shake the order, they will be acknowledged and celebrated. History has provided to us many examples of athletic talents who faced the same racial issues as Boulogne. From an Olympic runner who was shun from the sport in Jesse Owens and couldn’t make a living. Only when he allowed himself (something he later regretted), to be used by the establishment to try to deter Tommie Smith and John Carlos from protesting at the 1968 summer Olympics. After that attempt he was once again embraced by white society as a champion. There was a champion boxer named Cassius Clay (Muhammad Ali), who took a moral stand against a government, a war in Vietnam. He went from being called a hero, to be labeled as a traitor. Ali was not allowed to display his talents in the ring, strip of his belts and a right to a job due to his stand. A star quarterback took a team to the super bowl and was on the cover of a video game, cheer enthusiastically by fans in San Francisco. The star fiddled away when he took a knee against institutionalized racism, in protest of the systematic killings of black man by police.
But the most evident expression of hate towards an accomplished person of the color was the animosity President Obama received during his eight years in office. The first African American to assume the presidency met the same fate as one of the earliest musicians of the European classical tradition. Who was also of African ancestry, a black man trying to fit in a society that still wants erase their existence and view people of color as slave laborers. President Obama earned an M.A. from Harvard, a B.A. degree from Columbia University, taught constitutional law and was a great public speaker. Who became a senator and later president of this nation. Yet all those accomplishments never guaranteed him to be treated with the decency and respect he deserved. His nationality was questioned for many years and many whites marched in protest with racist signs that were made to dehumanize him. White society gave President Obama the same mulato treatment Joseph Boulogne received in the 18th century. “Economic anxiety” did not elect Trump. The desire of some white Americans from the farms to the suburbs, to see Mexican immigrants deported, a wall erected across the southern border and Muslims excluded from entering this country did. And that fear comes to the realization that when the “minorities” went out and voted, an African American ended up with two presidential terms.
There should be more direct efforts to teach more about all people of color who have accomplish greatness in this world. Only just through the gaining of knowledge of our rich culture and history as people of color, can we be able to share the wisdom of our talented artists, writers, scientists, athletes, and many more to the future generations. The story of Joseph Boulogne also known as Chevalier de Saint-George is not only a significant part of African world history, it also as an inspiration for aspiring artists of color all over the globe.
Edwin Rosario Mazara is the producer of the YouTube talk show La Sala Talks. He is also founder of the digital magazine Spanglish Voces. Ama las miles de historias de los desconocidos, “los de abajo” de esta tierra. He loves reading, la música, nature y un buen trago.