WNYC contacted me to correct a couple of things about this post. I'm just going to go ahead and quote their e-mail on this one:
1. You state that Ms. Headlee is white. She is, in fact, multiracial, with white, African American and Native American ancestry.
2. The Takeaway is not an NPR program. Rather, it is a co-production of WNYC and Public Radio International, in collaboration with the BBC World Service, The New York Times, and WGBH Boston.
In addition, they provide the following context for the interview I discussed:
In addition, I’d like to offer some context for the interview. Ms. Headlee is the granddaughter of William Grant Still, hailed as "The Dean of African American Composers." She is also a classically trained soprano whose thesis, deeply rooted in the work of her grandfather, explored African American spirituals. As someone who holds her own grandfather's legacy so dear, her follow-up question to the student's stated lack of connection to this music was not rooted in racial assumptions. Rather, she was curious that someone whose own grandfather, as the founder of the Howard University choir, was instrumental in keeping this music alive, did not experience it as part of his family's legacy.
So, yeah. I was pretty off base on that one. Another lesson in how difficult this stuff can be to talk about.
I'm listening to a segment on NPR about a concert of civil rights music at the White House. They have on members of Howard University's choir. It's an interesting interview because Celeste Headlee-- the white co-host of The Takeaway-- is constantly being surprised about how the singers don't conform to stereotypes of African Americans. The stereotypes in this case are neither positive nor negative, and thus provide an interesting example of how essentialism can work in even little teensy tiny ways.
So first, Celeste Headlee asks the singers of the choir what it's like to sing Spirituals. And one of them talks about how he can't really relate to them on a personal level, but he enjoys singing them. And she's totally taken aback by this statement and has to ask at least one more time something along the lines of "wait a second, you don't feel a special connection to this music?" Now if the singer were white, this'd be nothing to write home about, but it's an interesting moment.
Then she asks which singer was the most exciting to share the stage with and the guy answers "Bob Dylan" and you can kind of hear her head explode through the other side of the radio.
This brings me back in many ways to Suzan-Lori Parks' "New Black Math" essay, and Ta-Nehsi's writing on being a black nerd. She's interviewing a black man. Who sings for a choir. At a Historically Black University. But he doesn't really care about spirituals as a musical form and loves Bob Dylan. And because we navigate information in this world through stereotypes, this is completely and utterly shocking to Headlee. This doesn't make Headlee a racist or anything, it's just an example of what happens when we're confronted with counter stereotypic people, there's a kind of "does not compute!" that goes on.