These past few months, two separate issues have occupied much of my brain-space: the US election, and the many different ways/formats in which we humans express our art. The former is for obvious reasons, and like most Americans, November 9 cannot come soon enough for me and yet fills me with dread. The latter is for reasons obvious to me, as I shift my writing perspectives and take on new projects in ways that I haven’t approached my stories in the past (more on that in a future post).
Given these preoccupations, it’s not surprising that my mind is primed to process everything creativity-related through a specific lens. It’s also unsurprising that I viewed the PBS documentary The Girls in the Band as the coalescence of these disparate ideas. PBS describes the documentary this way: “The Girls in the Band reveals the poignant, untold stories of female jazz and big band instrumentalists and their fascinating, groundbreaking journeys from the late 1930s to the present day. These incredibly talented women endured sexism, racism, and diminished opportunities for decades, yet continued to persevere, inspire, and elevate their talents in a field that seldom welcomed them.”
Imagine living in the world that existed less than 100 years ago and being told you’re not welcome to pursue your artistic passion and expression, you’re not good enough, you’re at best ‘just the girl in the band’, with the explicit understanding that ‘girl’ in this case is a pejorative.Imagine finally breaking through nearly impregnable walls, getting jobs and making a living, only to turn up for work one day and be told, ‘the boys are home from the war so we’re firing you and hiring them’. Imagine showing up to audition for your dream job only to be told by the male musicians that they’ll let you in the band if you take off your shirt for them. The amazing women in this documentary endured these demeaning experiences and so, so much more. But they refused to give up their love of and passion for their music.
While most of us like to believe we are far beyond the daily atrocities that once permeated our society, there is, sadly, too much evidence that much prejudice and hatred still exists, and the worst is not so far behind us. The year I was born, there were racially-motivated clashes in my hometown. In my mother’s lifetime, racial segregation and Jim Crow laws in the US were just part of life. In my grandmother’s early years, women, who made up more than 50% of the population, did not even have the most basic of democratic rights, the right to vote for the (male-only) politicians who made the decisions that governed every aspect of their lives. But art in its many forms transcended that. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to claim that art not only challenged the discriminatory status quo, but helped motivate the very changes we take for granted today.
I think we’re going to see the music grow immensely, and instead of trying to approach it [as] women coming to a man’s world…we all realize this is not a man’s game. If you really look at the facts, it’s our game. We’re creators. We are creators. – Esperanza Spalding, jazz bassist, from The Girls in the Band
Women, people of color, the disabled, and those of other minority communities are, today, able to participate in art and sports and science and politics and all aspects of the public sphere. But for most of us, imagining a world where these things are impossible is far from a gedanken experiment. While often subtle, discrimination is still cutting, exclusionary, and silencing. We still need to be loud and strong and unyielding when confronted with barriers set up to keep us out, whether those barriers are erected at the best jazz clubs, the pages of the NYT Book Review, or political office.
“You want to be good anyway. But if you’re the girl in the band, you have to be.” – Patrice Rushen, jazz pianist/composer, from The Girls in the Band
So be the best at what you do. Art on. Art harder. Art as long and as loud and in whatever form you want. Be the girl in the band or with the paint brush or at the laptop writing the next bestseller. And if you’re a registered voter in the US, get out and vote!